Michael Moore’s Off-Color Draft Joke

The first official "decree" of our new president should be to draft the children of the rich, according to Michael Moore’s latest book, Mike’s Election Guide 2008.

Moore’s presidential decree builds on the idea that a draft would swell popular resistance to the occupation of Iraq, just as it increased opposition to the Vietnam War. As the reasoning goes, protesters filled the streets then because either their loved ones were targeted by conscription or they themselves held hot draft cards. If it’s the children of decision-makers this time around, so much the better.

Moore wants us to fight the proverbial last war, and his suggestion would backfire horrifically in the real world. Mainstream media outlets have become far more accommodating of the government’s version of truth since the Vietnam War. Witness the conflation of the Sept. 11 attackers and Saddam Hussein that was served up to us by the mainstream media. News channels have downplayed or ignored public demonstrations against the war. The Pentagon has become quite savvy about concealing what they’re doing, where they’re going, and who’s suffering. Witness their suppression of photos of coffins of servicepeople killed in Iraq. People don’t protest what they don’t know about, and most Americans’ information is limited to what mainstream news sources tell them.

There is a social justice aspect to the call for drafting the pampered rich kids whose parents think up these aggressive adventures. But would the government ever limit a draft to them and them alone? We don’t know for sure what an active conscription system today would look like, but the last experience should allow us some highly educated guesses. It was an arbitrary and unfair exercise in state power. Any male of sufficient affluence could beat it. In the 1960s and early 1970s, young men with resources had physicians writing disqualifying diagnoses and lawyers advising them on legal escape hatches. Nearly 9 million American men eligible for the draft wangled deferments or other exemptions (Baskir and Straus, p. 30). Civil libertarians note: draft boards in the South used their power to intimidate and imprison black civil rights activists, and blacks were dealt longer prison sentences for evasion (Ibid., pp. 99-100).

Fast forward to today. A personal history of blatant draft-dodging hasn’t obstructed the career paths of those who now enjoy high public offices. The jingoes among them have handily survived the sobriquet of "chickenhawk." Today’s stark economic inequality means a blatant two-way transfer of wealth and political power from which no newly minted conscription system could insulate itself. The target population of 18-24-year-old males is also more politically vulnerable than the cohort of 40 years ago. It’s a smaller percentage of the total population, and, more importantly, it’s more heavily immigrant (one out of seven young men) and poor (30 percent fall below the poverty line) (Rumbaut, p.3 [.pdf]). Top it all off with today’s metastasized executive power, and conscription becomes a particularly handy instrument of state repression, even more unfair than the last time around.

So here we have a cosmic bait and switch for social-justice draft advocates. They might hanker for the draft of their daydreams, but the real world will give us the draft, as old and tyrannical as the pharaohs.

There’s more to consider. Moore’s suggestion rests on the entirely unwarranted assumption that our country needs an expanded supply of people in uniform. The United States is currently staffing an empire of 761 active military installations in over 150 countries. The Department of Defense provides a 2007 figure of 1,372,905 active-duty military personnel, but don’t be surprised if the Pentagon treats warm bodies the way it handles money, i.e., "It’s around here somewhere." The Center for Defense Information has found that Pentagon statistics on personnel are notoriously inconsistent, and the numbers are imprecise as well. When the 2007 worldwide figures are broken out by country, the Defense Department’s own tables provide a subtotal for "Undistributed" of 119,291. In other words, the Pentagon doesn’t identify where roughly 9 percent of our current military force actually is.

That’s not to say, though, that the world’s biggest bureaucracy would turn down the chance to expand its power and influence. The brass may publicly demur at conscription – draftees are such a surly lot – but the Army has been accepting "category fours" (the lowest acceptable mental category) and other problematic groups for the last two years or more. If given the option, the military would take conscripts and take them gladly, because the generals have a raft of adventures to contemplate, from Africa to Venezuela. In the words of military specialist Philip Gold, a draft would be "putting the alcoholic in the liquor store."

Maybe Michael Moore’s proposal reflects his famously puckish sense of humor in the service of provocative thought. Sorry, but I’m not laughing. The Vietnam War draft warped some seven years of my life as I agonized over the right thing to do. I have two young sons, and I would opt to roast in hell if it would prevent them from being drafted. Although public opinion currently rejects conscription, that could change overnight with another spectacular terrorist attack, and calls for a "socially just" draft like Moore’s would grease the ideological skids. But no one should send any kid into war for empire. Any kid. Don’t even joke about it.