Blood Fatigue

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

Troublemaker Charles Rangel, the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has a deliciously bad idea.

The New York congressman recently reprised his audacious proposal — first made nearly four years ago, with the U.S. about to launch Operation Iraqi Quagmire — to reinstate the draft. He reasoned that, if a military action is really necessary, we should, you know, share the sacrifice: get congressmen’s’ children, presumably even Jenna and Barbara, involved in the action. And if it isn’t, we shouldn’t go to war.

As a faux-naive device for exposing hypocrisy, Rangel’s idea is worthy of Michael Moore, if not Borat. The hemming and hawing of establishment opposition is worth savoring for a news cycle.

But the real reason why the draft, so passionately defended by conservatives during the Vietnam era, is no longer “necessary” or wanted by the military-industrial-media complex is that the country is far too peace-loving to tolerate it.

What the proponents of the New Military can’t say is that a reinstated draft would blow the whole game. The draft equals Vietnam Syndrome — the public’s blood fatigue and rescinded mandate for military adventurism. A draft would wake up Generation Y. This is the one lesson the militarists have learned from the ’60s. Hell no, they won’t go — not with blind obedience they won’t. The draft would put the wars hatched in think tanks like Project for the New American Century under too much scrutiny. It’d be a mess.

Far better to wage war with the army we can get: the truly gung-ho, the desperate, the deluded. And with stop-loss orders, we can recycle these men and women through the meat grinder again and again. We don’t need the draft, congressman, but thanks anyway.

All of which makes Rangel’s threatened legislation immensely enticing. “There’s no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft and members of Congress and the administration thought that . . . kids from their communities would be placed in harm’s way,” he said on “Face the Nation.”

This indictment is so extraordinary it’s worth a pause long enough to let a shudder pass through our bodies. If kids from gated communities would have had to suit up, inhale depleted uranium dust, maybe come home with shrapnel in their skulls, the war pushers would have said “forget it” to the whole enterprise?

Well, we sort of know this, don’t we? Rangel’s proposal forces us to stop being in denial about what we know. It forces us to put words to it. And as we do so, the ache of awakening only intensifies. And the more we look at what we’re really asking of our kids — or other people’s kids — the more we realize that the draft is a bad idea because the military itself, down to its core principles, is a deeply flawed institution that needs rethinking as we confront the requirements of the 21st century.

I wonder, for instance, what sense it makes that an institution that manifests the worst of human nature and is premised on blatant moral relativism — it’s acceptable to kill, might makes right — commands half the federal budget? Pageantry and parade rhetoric aside, this is an institution that dehumanizes not only “the enemy” but, all too often, its own children.

For instance, we’ve evolved as a nation to a belief in gender equality that is belied by the macho tradition of the military. Women are now accepted in the ranks, but not in the sustaining mythology. The traditional belief is that military service is the path to manhood, not womanhood. This creates a fearful paradox, which also has another name: rape. The best intentions in the world won’t make this go away; the problem is endemic.

“When you are over there, you are lower than dirt; you are expendable as a soldier in general, and as a woman, it’s worse,” said U.S. Army Specialist Suzanne Swift, who refused to redeploy with her unit to Iraq at the beginning of this year because of sexual harassment. She’s hardly alone. A House Veterans Affairs study, which the Bush administration tried to suppress, found that 11 percent of the women in the National Guard and Reserve had experienced rape and 60 percent had been sexually harassed.

Beyond the specific experiences of women, the military is notorious for using GIs as guinea pigs, through forced inoculations with experimental vaccines and exposure to nuclear radiation and all manner of toxic substances, from Agent Orange to depleted uranium. Gulf War Syndrome has sickened a third of the 1991 fighting force in Iraq and Kuwait and claimed more than 10,000 lives. And in keeping with its policy of contempt for men and women in the ranks, the brass have repeatedly denied responsibility for the mystery illnesses veterans contract.

For all these reasons and more, the draft is a terrible idea and the military an unfit focal point for the ideal of national service. But I applaud Rangel’s scheme to force our hypocrisy about it out into the open.