How the end of the draft made way for an ‘era of persistent conflict.’
Today's public acquiescence to militarism was exactly what the government wanted when it ended the draft.
Few probably recall the name Dwight Elliott Stone. But even if his name
has faded from the national memory, the man remains historically
significant. That's because on June 30, 1973, the 24-year-old plumber's
apprentice became the last American forced into the armed services
before the military draft expired.
Though next month's 40-year anniversary of the end of conscription will
likely be as forgotten as Stone, it shouldn't be. In operations across
the globe, the all-volunteer military has been employed by policymakers
to birth what Gen. George Casey recently called the “era of persistent
conflict.” Four decades later, we therefore have an obligation to ask:
How much of the public's complicity in that epochal shift is a result of
the end of the draft?
There is, of course, no definitive answer to such a complex question.
However, a look back at some lost history shows that today's public
acquiescence to militarism was exactly what the government wanted when
it ended the draft.
That loaded term—“militarism”—was, in fact, a prominent part of the
1970 report by President Nixon's Commission on an All-Volunteer Force.
In its findings, the panel worried about “a cycle of anti-militarism” in
a nation then questioning America's increasingly martial posture.
Noting that “the draft is a major source of antagonism” toward the
growing military-industrial complex, the report praised the fact that
“an all-volunteer force offers an obvious opportunity to curb the growth
of anti-militaristic sentiment.”
Nixon's commission did devote some empty rhetoric to downplaying “the
fear of increased military aggressiveness or reduced civilian concern”
about military actions in the event of an all-volunteer force. But the
report's political conclusions were clear: By disconnecting most
Americans from the blood-and-guts consequences of war, the end of the
draft would “decrease dissent stemming from conscription” and “close one
of the channels” of anti-war organizing.
Today, such conclusions read like prophecy. Though polls showed that
many Americans opposed the Iraq War, that invasion and occupation was
historically unprecedented in length and yet never generated the kind of
mass protest that earlier shorter wars evoked. Same thing for the
Afghanistan War. Same thing for all the forward deployments to far-flung
bases and one-off missions.
The pattern suggests that in the absence of conscription, dissent—if
it exists at all—becomes a low-grade affair (an email, a petition, etc.)
but not the kind of serious movement required to compel military policy
changes. Why? Because as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates
put it, without a draft “wars remain an abstraction—a distant and
unpleasant series of news items that does not affect (most people)
says West Point's Lance Betros, is that Americans then “reflexively
move towards a military solution before they will try all the other
elements of national power.”
That reality has prompted some lawmakers in recent years to propose reinstating the draft
They argue it is the only way to compel Americans to truly care about
the foreign policy and national security decisions of their government.
Well-meaning people can certainly disagree about whether a modern-day
draft is a good idea or not (and it may not be). But forty years into
the all-volunteer experiment, it is clear that ending conscription was
as much about giving citizens the liberty to abstain from as about
quashing popular opposition to martial decisions. By design, it weakened
our democratic connection to the armed forces—a connection that is the
only proven safeguard against unbridled militarism.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
David Sirota, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is a bestselling author whose book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything was released in 2011. Sirota, whose previous books include The Uprising and Hostile Takeover,
co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. E-mail him at
email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his
website at www.davidsirota.com.