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It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse—
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.
— Cecil Day-Lewis
I hate the draft. But I now favor the draft. I hate even the thought of a war tax. But I’m coming out in favor of a war tax. Why? Because there are two things I hate more. I hate ignorance, an ignorance so profound that it threatens democracy. And I hate apathy, an apathy that passes for patriotism, an apathy that makes us feel that when we fly the flag, we fulfill our patriotic duty.
A few years ago, just before I retired, I was teaching English in a high school. I had a class of seniors, seventeen year olds, eighteen years olds. I no longer remember why, but in passing I mentioned the “two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” A student responded, “We’re fighting two wars? I didn’t know we were fighting one.” I asked the class about their feelings about these wars. There was a pause. They didn’t feel much. Finally, one student said he had a cousin in the National Guard. That same class was vastly more enthused by a reading about Canadian football.
Thus does the burden of military service fall upon a tiny fraction of society, with whom most folks have no connection. That apathy also insulates folks from the terrible price paid by those in uniform. I’m a veteran. I keep up with my old unit through the newsletter of the 4th Infantry Division Association. About the same time that I was talking to that class, it occurred to me that young folks then in the 4th, who volunteered for six years of active duty, sometimes spent two, three and even four years in a war zone.
So one kid spent years in Iraq, while another kid didn’t even know there was a war. As for the rest of us, few were in any sense engaged. No one was rationed. No one had a victory garden. No one paid a penny in war tax – we passed that cost to the next generation.
At any one given time, one-half of one percent of our entire population served in uniform during the height of these wars. During World War II, slightly more than one out of every ten Americans served in uniform. During Vietnam, it was slightly less than one out of twenty. When I retired from that public school mentioned above, with the exception of the JROTC staff, I was the only veteran. As one twenty-something year old teacher put it, “People my age just don’t do that.” Less than one percent of Ivy League grads volunteer. Today, veterans of all ages make up slightly less than seven percent of our entire population. About one percent of folks in Congress have a child in the service.
In 2011, the Pew Research Center noted that, while Americans overwhelmingly say they feel proud of those who serve, 71% say they know little or nothing about the military. That same study found that 74% oppose reinstating a draft. Presumably, many of these same folks put a “Support The Troops” bumper sticker on their cars, say “Thank you for your service” to a veteran, then think their patriotism satisfied, their duty now well done. We can’t dismiss their sincerity. They mean well. I get that. But it just isn’t enough.
I hate the draft. I hate the idea of a war tax. But we need the draft. And we need a war tax whenever we have a war. Why? There are only two things worse than the draft and a war tax: ignorance and apathy.
I hate ignorance; I hate apathy; I hate the idea of a war without cost, of patriotism without sacrifice. That’s why I want a draft. That’s why I want a pay-as-you-go war tax. Every time there is a war.
Serve or pay. Some folks serve. The rest pay. All of us. Not 0.5% serve, while 95.5% pass on the cost to the next generation. All of us serve or pay. No exemptions. No deferments. War is too high a price to pay for even one of us to remain ignorant of the cost, and apathetic toward the sacrifice.
War is about soldiers. But war is more than soldiers. I recall a North Vietnamese poet saying, of his time in the army, that when he aimed his rifle at an American, he first aimed at the heart of that boy’s mother.
Rob had the back of his head shot-off in Vietnam. But he didn’t die right away. He lived long enough to call home. His father, Carl, answered the phone. That phone call killed Carl as surely as that bullet killed Rob. A year of so later, when I went to Vietnam, Rob’s mother often consoled my mother. My point in telling this story is this. There was a sense of communal sacrifice.
Like World War II. When Mr. Re, next door, lost his leg at Anzio. When Mr. McGoogan, who lived caddy-corner, was wounded at Iwo Jima. When folks had a victory garden. When gas was rationed. When war meant cost. When patriotism meant sacrifice.
There is, of course, an alternative. We could become an informed electorate. We could become politically engaged. But I despair of that solution. Because, as one of my old students might say, “How’s that going so far?”
John Samuel Tieman, Fort Polk Louisiana, 1969, Basic Training