Make serving in War an Option, not an Order

Josef Beno didn’t want to go to war. A Czech, he didn’t want to kill his fellow Slavs, the Russians. A father, he didn’t want to leave his starving family unprotected.

But the year was 1915 and Austria-Hungary was rounding up men and boys to serve in the war. Those who resisted were shot. After hiding for a year, Josef was captured for conscription. He escaped, only to be captured by Russians and marched to Siberia.

As the story goes, troops received injections by needle to make them aggressive. Perhaps it was merely a tale to explain a father’s changed temper, for upon returning home, Josef physically abused his wife and children, including his daughter, my grandmother.

So women have gained equal rights to serve in combat. The top officials of the Army and Marine Corps earlier this year told Congress that women should register for the draft, and a bill to that effect is to be debated this month. But equal rights implies rights to greater freedom of will, not less. And while one can apply for conscientious objector status, this leaves one’s fate with a judge.

It is now men who must gain equal rights with women, be freed from registration, and engage in war only by choice. Military service should not be dressed up as sacred responsibility if irresponsible policy entangles us in war.

When conscription was proposed prior to the 1812 U.S. invasion of Canada, an enraged Rep. Daniel Webster argued:

Where is it written in the Constitution … that you may take children from parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war in which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage it?1

Do we truly care for our boys? It’s hard enough for boys to endure an imbalanced childhood of overdone schooling. School staff can be wonderful and academics can be meaningful, but academic overkill can abort one’s desire to ever read or write again as it represses biological and spiritual needs for adventure, movement, play, conversation, free thoughts, sleep, and fresh air. And then, at 18 years, to surrender the ultimate freedom, the right to live and let live, is, as Webster noted, blatant hypocrisy in a nation labeled free.

If “no taxation without representation” so stirred American revolutionists, why do Americans accept being taxed and potentially drafted for wars over which we’ve no vote, no hearings, no congressional dialogue? What was the point of school? To help us participate thoughtfully in democracy? Or to silence our minds and make us submissive? To create a repressed population eager to blame frustrations on foreigners?

Military registration threatens freedom far worse than gun registration. So why is military registration silently accepted while gun registration protest makes headlines? Or do folks plan to use their assault weapons against the draft board?

If males don’t register, they’re ineligible for federal college loans, federal jobs, and a New York driver’s license. Just as selfish greed for resources can steer our external policies, venal selfishness is shamelessly bred by internal policies that bait males to accept killing in exchange for financial rewards and possible careers.

Ironically, draft proponents claim conscription is character-building; they see nothing selfish about killing as a means of building character. They don’t see that the rest of us are building character in other ways.

Former President George W. Bush once remarked: “I do believe there is the image of America out there that we are so materialistic, that we’re almost hedonistic, that we don’t have values, and that when stuck, we wouldn’t fight back.”

But being willing to kill and be killed isn’t a healthy, non-hedonist sign of morality, and thirst for shallow pleasure doesn’t drive the anti-war movement.

President Gerald Ford abolished military registration in 1973, but President Jimmy Carter revived it in 1980 during Afghanistan’s civil war in which Soviet-backed Marxists fought U.S.-backed fundamentalist mujahideen. Fear, ignorance, greed, “folly and wickedness” convinced U.S. policymakers to use foreigners’ internal conflicts to pursue their own game of superpower rivalry for wealth and power. Even foreign efforts to help workers and the poor were labeled “communist” by the U.S. and sabotaged.

Decades of unpublicized controversy existed in government over the Cold War policies that many recognize today as small-minded. But why should U.S. males continue to pay the price and serve as a safety net for U.S. foreign policymakers’ failures?

Like a hero struggling impressively to escape danger and grasp some hard-to-reach branch — that’s the strenuous effort government should be exerting to pursue non-violent conflict resolution. Instead, government shirks its responsibilities and dwells upon which military strategy to pursue.

U.S. errors unnecessarily precipitating war include refusing to negotiate unless enemies obey U.S. pre-conditions, one-sided authoritarian negotiation, ignoring opponents’ perspectives, discounting their fears, snubbing indigenous non-violent movements, opportunistically taking sides in others’ conflicts, sending weapons, and covertly instigating conflict.

The obvious question: Should U.S. troops be required to fight wars precipitated by U.S. policymakers’ failures and aggravated by an unrepresentative breed of Americans in power who obsessively prize wealth and control? Or is this an undemocratic abuse of troops?

With the refreshing exception of Green Party candidate Jill Stein, today’s presidential candidates uphold the killing approach. But instead of sacrificing lives in some primitive rite upon Earth’s altar, can’t candidates sacrifice time to read books about foreign perspectives? Couldn’t the Democratic and Republican parties follow the Green Party’s lead and sacrifice allegiance to war-prone, wealth-oriented donors?

While some believe in the power of blood sacrifice to solve problems, it would be more practical for U.S. leaders to sacrifice time and ego to develop cooperative negotiation skills, sacrifice their addiction to sending arms, and sacrifice those murky pecuniary goals lurking behind war’s stated goals.

Government had no right to force Josef Beno to fight 100 years ago, and it has absolutely no right to demand that our sons register and prepare for blood sacrifice today. No one has the right to such power over another being. So let’s move beyond blood sacrifice and make the practical sacrifices that truly resolve conflict.

• A version of this article appeared in Albany Times Union (May 2016)

  1. Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods, Jr., Editors. We Who Dared To Say No To War. Daniel Webster. “The Draft Is Unconstitutional.” []
Kristin Christman is author of The Taxonomy of Peace and "Mother's Day." Read other articles by Kristin.