Watching this Presidential campaign turn into a recapitulation of the Vietnam era has been rather strange for me, since I was born the year after the war ended. I know the basic history, of course, but for me, it’s just that—history—while for others, the Vietnam era is something they personally remember. That’s what accounts for the bitterness of the charges leveled against Kerry and Bush.
To me, the whole thing is evidence (if it were needed) of just what a bad idea the military draft is—how harmful the draft is to political society. Forcing tens* of thousands of young men to go to their deaths created a situation where people sought desperately to escape, or to bend the rules to allow their friends and family to escape. Those who went, and their families, necessarily resent those who were able to manipulate the rules enough to stay in college or get in the National Guard or somehow escape the war. Others, like Kerry, cynically embraced the war at first as a political opportunity, which gains resentment on the other side—and then joined the war protestors. The protestors were able to attract much support for their position because of the draft. Those who saw the Vietnam war as a struggle for freedom had their argument seriously undermined by the fact that they were sending men to die without their consent.
Tocqueville said in the 1830s that he didn’t think the draft could ever be introduced in America because it was so antithetical to American mores. And when the draft was introduced during the Civil War, the result was the worst riots in American history. In the years after that the draft was more or less accepted, apparently, but the Vietnam protestors seized upon it, and rightly so, as a major violation of American principles of individual liberty. Introducing something like that into our society was like the Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, introducing his bag of gold into the peaceful little town—it turned friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor, and it still does, thirty years after the end of the war.
The left’s attempt to portray Iraq as the New Vietnam has so far failed mostly because we don’t have a draft. Re-introduce the draft—as some people are suggesting—and you will instantly turn thousands of people (including me) into war protestors. Hundreds of thousands of others will likewise be converted, but more slowly. Then the resentment will begin between members of my generation—accusations of “draft dodger” will be flung—accusations which never can be erased; the concept of a war for freedom will dissolve. Bad as this is for the success of this endeavor, the reintroduction of the draft would cause even worse harm to American society.
*-Originally, I wrote hundreds. My error.