Ruminating On the Likelihood of Conscription in the USA

Class, conscription and the role of anarchists in anti war movements

Everyone has by now heard rumors of a coming military conscription. At first such chatter only wafted through the halls of cyberspace, ignored by the “mainstream media” (as the newspaper editorialists and blow-dried talking heads of the television news are known, who serve as quasi-official spokesmen for the corporations and politicians.)

But the clamor increased until it could no longer be ignored. At last John Kerry, in the midst of a closely contested power struggle at the uppermost reaches of the power structure of the United States, eager to be installed as the new Commander of Chief of Imperialist Conquest, made a desperate bid for the support of the serving classes by going on record as being opposed to such. In so doing, he implied that President Bush had secret plans for a draft (while leaving it to his minions to make the accusation outright.)

So it was that during the past election, readers of Newsweek had the curious experience of opening an issue of that magazine, and being treated to the journal’s very first words on the subject, an entire page of analysis as to why America will NOT be returning to military conscription in the near future. Three years after the resumption of unabashed global military conquest by the U.S, in the wake of two invasions of sovereign nations, in the midst of a long-running discussion about “our” forces being stretched to their tautest limit, and long after the gears of the bureaucratic machinery at the Selective Service were put back into motion “just in case”… after all this smoke, Newsweek spoke and pronounced that there was no fire.

“Ain’t gonna happen. We know, ‘cause we are the authorities. It is merely the frightened plebeians, starting at their own shadows. It is all but sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Ok, Newsweek doesn't really quote Shakespeare like that, but you get my drift.)

One is reminded of the Wizard of Oz, exposed: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Draft? What draft?

The marines are looking for a few good men… who don’t watch the news!

Now, I have no crystal ball. The American ruling class may return to the forcible recruitment of its cannon fodder, or it may prefer to continue letting economic hardship drive young men and women into the lowest echelons of its conquering hordes. The latter course surely offers advantages to the rich: by offering enlistees escape from the basest poverty, and offering them at least the assurance of food, shelter and clothing, “volunteer” recruitment provides soldiers to the military brass who are armed with a minimal level of grudging gratitude, an allegiance to military forms that was notably absent in the conscripts who were selected by arbitrary lottery to trudge the rice paddies of Vietnam (for one example).

The “all-volunteer” army, you see, is just one of the many faces of privatization. “Let the market do what the government cannot”, has been the mantra of the bosses since at least the Reagan era.

“Draft age kids running off to Canada? Enlisted men fraggin’ their officers? Fine, no problem. We shall call upon the American underclass, the bottom strata of the working class, the only-occasionally-working and barely-making-it class. They will serve nicely as a pool of 'volunteers' for our new all-patriot army. They will take anything they can get, and be glad of it.” (And given the circumstances, who could blame them?)

But another advantage of the status quo, the economic draft, is a more subtle benefit. The illusion of volunteerism, the myth that American armed forces are peopled with eager and patriotic youth, gung-ho warriors standing in line to serve the country that they love- this false image serves as a balm for the national conscience. It disarms the pacifist, liberal faction of the American middle class.

Liberals, you will recall, get all bent out of shape when “our boys” are called to fight in wars “that they don’t believe in”. Fine, say the generals, we will fight our wars with only the service of the (hungry, desperate, unemployed, uneducated, disproportionately darker-skinned) true believers. If you don't believe in war, or our ideas of war, then don't join. What could be more fair?

And so the liberals, whose concern for “our boys” seems to be restricted to their own children, or at best those children who most resemble their own kids in race and social status, are placated. Their altruism fails to extend across national boundaries, class chasms or racial divides. The noble sermons bandied about the Sunday morning pews fail to translate into the language of the street outside, much less into the dialects of the East.

So perhaps the ruling class will stay the course, and continue to reap the benefits of the economic draft, the all-hungry sorta-willing volunteer-like army. If they can, they surely will. But if circumstances dictate, if they need more new soldiers than the current economic downturn will provide, they just as surely will reverse course and draft. You can count on it.

And please, don’t be fooled into thinking that a Kerry presidency would have made this scenario any less likely. Remember that Lyndon Baines Johnson rode into office in 1964 by painting his opponent, Barry Goldwater, as a war-monger. (This was the election in which the Democrats employed the now-infamous mushroom-cloud TV commercial). The peace candidate won in 1964. Immediately upon being elected, this erstwhile peace candidate, now playing the role of Commander in Chief with a mandate, escalated the war in Vietnam until, for many years, young men were the number one import of the U.S. to Southeast Asia.

Johnson was a peace candidate in 1964, Kerry was a peace candidate in 2004, and Santa Claus is on his way, complete with flying reindeer.

What to do with the prodigal liberals?

Let us suppose for a moment that military conscription is on the horizon. What then? There are those among us who have been in the streets opposing the U.S. war drive since the buildup to the invasion of Afghanistan, or before. Among these anti-war veterans, it would be reasonable to anticipate a certain reluctance to welcome into the fold folks who become aroused only if and when the prospect of conscription appears on the horizon. That is to say, liberals who only come into the anti-war movement once their own lives, or their children’s lives are threatened, are a bit suspect. “Where were you for the Afghani kids, the Iraqis?”, we might ask. “Where were you for the POOR American kids?”

As understandable as these sentiments are, let us try not to indulge them. While a certain low-grade petulance may be unavoidable, let us make an effort not to flaunt our resentments. After all, are any of us in a position to condemn another for adopting radicalism only after our own well-being was put in play? Consider those of us who hail from working class origins, for example. Are we not anarchists precisely because the class struggle first came to our attention via personal experience? And is not personal experience with racial oppression the driving force for the radicalism of so many? Anarchist feminism is not a drawing room topic, it is a manifestation of the rebellion of the oppressed. Assuming that we all bring scars with us into the revolutionary/social movements, who are we to condemn those who only join the forces struggling for liberation, once their own well-being is put in play?

If we became radicals solely out of altruism, then we are do-gooders without a church. And if we became revolutionaries because we experienced oppression first hand, than we have no moral superiority to the anticipated latter-day peaceniks.

Perhaps we fear that if people only respond to their own interests, that if we fail to attract fellow travelers on the basis of altruism, we will always remain politically marginalized? Not to worry, comrades. There is no shortage of people under the heel of capitalist oppression. This is the least of the impediments to our growth.

Perhaps we fear that the newly radicalized liberals, struggling to protect their children from having to join the poor within the ranks of the military, will use us for their own narrow political ends, returning to a safe political middle-ground as soon as the immediate danger is passed? For many or most, this will almost surely be the case. And yet, I know of no principled alternative but to accept the solidarity of all who oppose the war drive, in the certainty that a few, at least, will linger on beyond the moment, to become fellow radicals and even revolutionaries. History predicts as much.

Fight the power, whatever form it takes

In spite of the fact that conscription might spread the burden of war more evenly throughout the lower and middle social layers than does the status quo, it would be unseemly for the class-conscious left to cheerlead for its implementation. In other words, in spite of all that is wrong with the all-volunteer army, the economic draft, we should not support those voices who call for it to be replaced by conscription. Unlike the U.S. politicos who haunt the halls of Congress , we care too much for the lives of our fellows to make such callous comments, much less such callous decisions. As it happens, no one on the (far) left has any influence on this decision, anyway. The bosses will chart their course based on what best serves their needs. A thin veneer of electoral ritual may serve to obfuscate the nature of the process, but in fact it makes small difference what the opinion of the average American is. Hope for a draft or don’t, vote for or against a “peace candidate”, it matters little.

As a political entity, however, it does matter how we prepare for either eventuality. We should not hinge all of our plans on a coming conscription. The current state of affairs is easily horrific enough to be resisted unequivocally, to be fought tooth and nail, heart and soul. And a draft may well prove unnecessary.

The recent advent of organized support for war resisters is a welcome development, as is the focus on counter-recruitment. It is a good beginning for the implementation of a strategy that does not depend on a draft, in order to strike at the government's ability to wage war.

On the other hand, if the rulers do opt for conscription, it could conceivably open up the floodgates to rebellion and radicalism the likes of which this dull nation has not seen in quite some time, and many of us have scarcely dared hope for. The radical upsurge in the wake of the fabled Battle in Seattle would pale in comparison. We should be prepared for this scenario as well.

Again, let us suppose that military conscription is just around the corner. What will we do if the streets are suddenly filled with angry, alienated, mostly middle-class youth and their social allies? Anything? Guarantee our ongoing marginalization by demanding that they demonstrate their working-class bona fides before we call them comrade? Leave them to the tender mercies of the liberals and Leninists (who will have no libertarian qualms against “leading” such an upsurge)? I think not. I hope not.

One might hope to see a sort of "underground railroad" develop to spirit draft dodgers to safety, whether in Canada or elsewhere. But it is not the place of the revolutionary organization to build such a structure. Such an activity, if carried out directly by a party or organization, would be distinctly vanguardist. However, such a means of resistance would be most welcome under the auspices of a libertarian theory, rather than organization.

That is to say, our place as a revolutionary organization would be to promote the idea of draft resistance within our literature and other political work,. And just as importantly, to promote the idea of material support by common citizens for such resisters.

Our place would also be, as members of our class and communities, to participate in such resistance and support. Remember that we seek, not to lead a revolutionary army from the bush, but rather to bring libertarian revolutionary ideas and practice into the center of social movements. To attempt to organize militant direct resistance from within our agitational collectives (besides being a security nightmare, and an invitation to repression) would be to trade long term organizing goals, for short term, romantic adventurism. An alluring image, I am quick to concede. But unwise.

Again, I think that we would be well advised to prepare for any likely scenario, including, but not limited to, a resumption of conscription. In the event of conscription, we should welcome and support all resisters, including those of middle class origins. From within our revolutionary groupings, we should agitate for militant resistance, and for widespread support for resisters. And we should participate in such resistance and support as members of our class, and of our communities (but not as members of our formal organizations).

It is not outside the realm of possibility that a movement against conscription and war might, in the near future, offer dramatically expanded revolutionary opportunities. Only time will tell. But whatever course the rulers take, we have much work to do in the meantime.

prole cat, The Capital Terminus Collective, Atlanta, GA, USA (personal capacity)

This article was written for