Thursday, August 14, 2008

National Service, Conscription, "don't ask don't tell": how would these issues mix? "Morality" has really changed!



As many visitors know, I grew up during the Cold War, when the way young men shared the apparent risks of protecting democracy was perceived as one of the central “moral” issues of the day.

Right after 9/11, some observers and politicians did call for a return of the draft. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said so just three days after the attacks. Charles Moskos, architect of “don’t ask don’t tell” regarding gays in the military, starting arguing for conscription, but more on social justice grounds than real need, in November 2001 in the Washington Post. Moskos even emailed me as follows that month: “Gays must come out for conscription. Then the ban would be lifted.” See “Now do you believe we need a draft: We’re in a new kind of war. Time for a new kind of draft,” written with Paul Glastris, link here (Washington Monthly), URL here. Part of his argument is that conscripts could serve in technologically advanced positions, but we were actually moving in that direction during Vietnam (as with my own experience, below). But the thrust of his concerns is that those who benefit from advanced society seem to be the most immune from the consequences of actions that lead to the need to defend it. One sentence from the piece is particularly telling: “One reason more young people don't serve now is the fear that while they're wearing the uniform, their peers will be out having fun and getting a leg up in their careers. If everyone were required to serve, no one would feel like a sucker.” In some cases since, Moskos seems to have favored national service, but possibly with more post-service benefits for those in the military. Other politicians, like Charles Rangell (D-NY) has articulated comparable sentiments, and on the conservative side, columnists like Jack Cafferty have raised the service and draft issue (in his book "It's Getting Ugly Out There"; see my books blog, Oct. 2007).

The arguments go in several directions from here. Most Americans apparently don’t want to see military conscription, but many would favor mandatory national service, or at least a strong carrot incentive for service. Barack Obama has said “you owe that to yourself.” Would it take place just once, at the end of adolescence, or could it be cyclical, throughout life? Would it result in tuition allowances, for college or even careerswitchers (like into teaching)? Would the service emphasize third world work in primitive conditions, or expanded social empathy skills (working with underprivileged children)? Right after 9/11, there were lots of papers around for “citizen corps” kinds of activities specifically related to imagined homeland security needs.

Then there is the question of the “backdoor draft,” which is how the current forced “Stop-Loss” extensions of military service work now (as in the recent movie of that name). The graphic nature of the casualties in the war in Iraq, and the obvious psychological burdens not only on the particular veterans but also their spouses and families This point comes across particularly in recent independent films like “Fighting for Life” and “Body of War”. Another question would be whether any kind of conscription (or mandatory service) would apply to females too. Most of the American public would probably think that it should, as it does in Israel now. In the 1981 case of Rostker v. Goldberg (orig. Rowland v. Tarr), as discussed in an old Heritage Foundation paper, by Thomas Ascik, “Draft Registration: Congress, the Supreme Court, the Separation of Powers” here. The 1981 case developed in a political climate where Carter had proposed resuming draft registration because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which now seems ironic. Cornell Law School has a copy of the Opinion here.

Many people do not know that the Selective Service System is still active and that men within a certain age range must still register. It is possible to register online was well as by USPS mail. Sometimes Selective Service actually recruits people from the community to "serve" on the local board. I would decline. Selective Service does say that if a draft were reenacted today by Congress, it would use a lottery (unless Congress changed it, which is very unlikely). It doesn't look like the President can do this alone by executive action. Visitors should peruse the site, especially the details (link on the left) as to what happens if a draft is re-authorized.

In the past, married men had some draft deferments, and then those with children (the so-called “Kennedy fathers”) could be deferred, until Johnson engineered that this policy be changed as Vietnam heated up in 1965. Until 1969 and Nixon’s “lottery”, student deferments became the moral issue “du jour,” a convenient target from the political Left which could attack the hereditary politics of privilege. In my mind, the whole deferment issue is a kind of moral mirror of the debate over “don’t ask don’t tell” in 1993. I can’t stress this enough: the deferment issue played on the idea that some men were more “worthy” to live on than others, whether by marital performance (to put it bluntly, however unpleasant that is to contemplate by today’s standards), or because of “book smarts.” I remember that the deferments were a sensitive issue when I was an assistant instructor in graduate school; students who failed undergraduate math could wind up in the rice paddies, literally. Two decades or so before, the World War that we had won had been fought to defeat that kind of national mentality. Times do change, don’t they.

It is noteworthy that both Prince William and Prince Harry (Windsor) serve in the British military. The exposure of Harry's service in Afghanistan as a lieutenant led to his removal for security reasons last spring.

After my college expulsion from William and Mary in 1961 (for admitting “latent homosexuality”) and subsequent “recovery” and obtaining an MA in Mathematics in 1966, I did “volunteer for the draft” and served two years, officially without incident. (In 1984, I was able to buy a home VA.) But there is more. To protect my “reputation” (in what seems to me an odd prequel to today’s notion of “online reputation defense”) I volunteered for the draft physical three times, in 1964, 1966 and 1967. The results of the physical were 4-F, 1-Y and finally 1-A. I may be the only “self-proclaimed homosexual” who went from 4-F to 1-A and finally was drafted. I remember talking to two Army recruiters, one in Kansas and one in Arlington. The Arlington one said that there was a 95% chance that anyone who drafted or who enlisted for only two years would get infantry as the MOS and go to Nam and really fight. As for OCS, “they needed leaders of men in combat.” That’s how it was put. Technically, I reported two weeks before my induction date and enlisted for two years, which many people did not know you could do,

But the sequel is even more telling. In early 1968, I took 14 weeks to finish Basic Training (I spent a few weeks in “Special Training” to pass the PCPT (Physical Combat Proficiency Test) with a final score of 357), but then was assigned to the Pentagon through Fort Myer. I lived at “home” part of the time, but was in the South Post barracks when news of the RFK assassination in Los Angeles became known. The song “Those were the days, my friend, I thought they would never end” was playing and interrupted with the news. It’s one of those moments one remembers.

Mysteriously, I would be “transferred” out of the Pentagon in September and I would spend the rest of my hitch in Fort Eustis (“Fort Useless”), ten miles from the William and Mary campus from which I had been expelled eight years earlier. But my MOS was “01E20”, Mathematician, and it kept me out of Vietnam. As for the two-year hitch, I was one of the fortunate 5%. I met other graduate school scientists in the Army, and some had done what I did and “taken their chances” with two years and won. Others had bought the lie and were in for three. The social climate in my own Army experience was much more tolerant toward homosexuality (often more so than in civilian life) because of the education level and because of general opposition to war. In fact, most people expected that the war would end sooner if Nixon was elected in 1968. It eventually ended, and with it, the draft.

I have written before that the draft could be compared to involuntary servitude, and freedom from the later is a fundamental right. But the simile is not complete. Our culture is running up another inconvenient truth, or “apparent truth”: some common responsibilities are much easier to carry out when everyone knows he or she has to share in them, no exceptions.

As I noted, the public as a whole does not want military conscription again, and wants to see us out of Iraq (Afghanistan is a different matter perhaps). But the public may favor the idea that some kind of service should become practically mandatory. It could be possible to structure it in a way to help most families pay for college or career education tuition and reduce the load of student loan debt. The issue of “don’t ask don’t tell” obviously must come up in such an environment. To push gays away from the military in a quasi-mandatory service environment, whatever the “unit cohesion” and “barracks privacy” arguments, will create its own secondary problems (remember that in the late 60s it was just beginning to be acceptable for some people to try to get out of the draft by feigning homosexuality, and the draft examination boards usually didn’t buy it (as in the 1996 film, "Stonewall"). It seems appropriate that Marty Meehan's bill (HR 1246) in Congress to end "don't ask don't tell" has the words "Military Readiness" in its name. Some of those arguments (justifying DADT) could be used in other areas (like fire departments and law enforcement, or intelligence) but increasingly we find that these arguments become red herrings. But even in other areas of service, personal traits can become significant, particularly for volunteers deployed to culturally or politically sensitive areas overseas.

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