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Why the Draft Never Stopped a War

Flag of the National Front for the Liberation ...It was the Vietnamese Who Stopped the US War Machine
By JONATHAN CARP | CounterPunch | October 17, 2013

In 2011 I sat on a panel discussion at King’s Books in Tacoma, Washington, on the subject of the effect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on soldiers and their families. My prepared remarks were a discussion of the impact of repeated deployments on the families I saw on the labor and delivery floor where I worked, but during the discussion after I was startled to hear a forceful call for the re-reinstatement of the draft from one of my fellow panelists- a call that met with widespread cheers from the audience.

Since then I’ve seen many, many more calls for a draft from ostensibly anti-interventionist voices, most recently in Andrew Bacevich’s latest book. The underlying premise of these calls, sometimes made explicit and sometimes not, is that a draft would stop America’s lust for war and foreign interventions because it would force the burdens of war to be spread more equally. The draft has been damned, and rightly so, for being a form of slavery and at times a particularly murderous one at that, but even those who might get the vapors at the idea of seeing American solders as slaves cannot deny the simple historical fact that the draft has never, ever- not once- stopped or slowed or in any way inhibited the conduct of a war.

The first American war fought with conscription was the first American war, the Revolution, and it was fought all the way to its conclusion. The next war fought with conscripts, the Civil War, claimed more American lives than any other and while the draft helped provoke some riots, most notably a draft protest turned anti-black pogrom in New York City, that war too was fought all the way to the bloody finish. The First and Second World Wars as well were fought largely with draftees and fought to the bitter end, in the latter case with the immolation of two major cities by a hideous new weapon delivered by aircraft in part manned by draftees.

Korea and especially Vietnam form what the pro-draft lobby thinks of as the lynchpin of their case. The conventional narrative of resistance to the war in Vietnam is of Middle America tiring of seeing its sons’ lives destroyed by Westmoreland’s war of attrition and rising up, of LBJ allegedly saying “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Supposedly the marches in the streets somehow persuaded the American government to leave Vietnam. What this narrative leaves out is what actually stopped the American war in Vietnam–the Vietnamese.

The American Revolution, the Civil War, the World Wars- for the American government, these were all victorious wars. Victory is very popular; victorious wars, however obviously aggressive or absurdly unjust, rarely generate any significant resistance. But in Vietnam, America was not winning. America was losing, and badly. Middle America was in the streets against Vietnam, it is true, but they weren’t there because Johnny was coming home in a box. They were there because Johnny was losing.

The pro-draft narrative of domestic resistance to the Vietnam War is at heart a racist, imperialist narrative, denying the Vietnamese their place as actors in their own history, giving pride of place to white Americans holding signs in the street over Vietnamese peasants giving their lives to drive out yet another imperialist power coming to lord over their country. What stopped the Vietnam War was not a college kid with a sign; it was a rice farmer with an AK-47. Americans only get upset about draftees dying when they are dying in a losing war, and credit for resistance to such wars goes not to Americans at home but to the victims of the American government abroad.

The idea that if only everyone had to share the burden, war would be less popular seems intuitive and appealing, but history reveals it to be deluded. Victory makes wars popular, and defeat makes them unpopular. To try to stop the war machine from inside the imperial center, we must do whatever we can to gum up its works, be it counter-recruiting, supporting GI resistance, spreading awareness about the costs of militarism, tax resistance, or anything else that might help. And while we might debate their ultimate aims as Communists in Vietnam or Islamic radicals in Iraq, we must always remember that the people who do the most to stop the war machine are the people who take up arms against it.

Jonathan Carp is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and a nurse. He lives in Tacoma, WA.

October 18, 2013 - Posted by | Civil Liberties, Deception, Militarism, Timeless or most popular | , ,


  1. I don’t know where Mr. Carp was in 1966 – 1975 but I was in the Marine Corps, in VN fighting the war, and later in the streets of Ohio State getting hit with knee-knockers fighting against the war. Mr. Carp has it wrong.

    There was heavy, vocal, and well publicized draft resistance from the get-go of the VN War — well before it was recognized as a war and will before the media woke up to the fact that the USG was losing its butt. It was the fear of getting drafted that motivated everything from the violence at the Chicago Democratic convention to the violence at OSU and Kent State to the march on Washington. Those people in the streets could not have cared less whether the USG was winning or losing; all the majority of them cared about was whether they were going to get a draft notice. It was they who turned public opinion — including Conkrite — against the war. There was a reason Nixon won the 1968 election: he ran on a promise to end the draft, although Congress didn’t do it until late 1972. Once the draft ended, the protestors went home. The killing went on for 3 years.

    The USG learned from VN what Mr. Carp apparently has not. Now, instead of knocking the hornets’ nest of the draft down on their heads, the USG just recycles and recycles and recycles the same poor suckers into harm’s way while the vast majority of the country who have nothing to lose sits in self-serving silence, which is much more deadly than the self-serving anti-draft/anti-VN demonstrations of yesteryear.

    There should be 2 yrs of compulsory, universal military/public service, so that every single family in the country runs the same risk of enormous loss, and the burden of fighting/dying are spread evenly demographically. Then politicians’ careers would well neigh be on the line for capriciously putting American lives at risk.

    Comment by Denis | October 18, 2013 | Reply

    • “Once the draft ended, the protestors went home. The killing went on for 3 years.”

      It sounds as though you agree however that the ending of the draft did not end the war. In 1975 it was the Vietnamese that did that, three years after the protests died down.

      So it seems that you both concur that protests are not what mattered.

      I would point out that privileged youth were never well represented in the military and those who did go were not infantry combat troops, so the deterrent factor there is missing since we all know how little political influence the underclass in the US has.

      Comment by aletho | October 18, 2013 | Reply

      • You and Mr. Carp — the same? — are inadvertently twisting both the facts and the logic. Maybe I can help you out.

        As to your specific comment “It sounds as though you agree however that the ending of the draft did not end the war.” Two points.

        1. It depends on what you mean by “ending the draft.” The last men drafted in VN were drafted in 1972 and didn’t report for duty until June, 1973. They had 2-year enlistments, so there was no decline in cannon fodder until June 1975. IOW Congress did not end the draft retroactively; there was inertia in the system.

        2. Obviously, a draft, per se, does not stop war. A draft, per se, promotes war b/c it gives the USG all the cannon fodder it needs.

        What is at issue is not whether a draft stops war, but whether public reactions to a draft stop or end illegitimate wars. IOW, can a democratic government initiate and sustain illegitimate wars like VN and Irag on the backs of draftees for however long it takes to win? No. And politicians now understand that — as both McNamera and Rumsfeld have made clear numerous times. So in that sense, while a draft, per se, does not stop war, the public/political reaction that a draft inflames will absolutely bring an end to an illegitimate war. Presumably, if there is a draft in effect, the potential of such public reaction would counsel politicians who want to get re-elected not to grant war powers unless the war is absolutely justified. That’s what VN tells us.

        That is the obvious point of my observation that once Nixon closed the draft, the protestors went home. At that point, without the draft and millions of potential draftees to continue the ground war, the war closed down. Nixon had no other alternative, other than nuking the place. The ARVN sure as hell couldn’t hold their own.

        To put this even simpler — had there been no draft there would have been no protests, no violence, and no killings in America’s streets and on America’s campuses. Had there been no draft and no protests/violence, the war would have ground on and escalated for as long as necessary as enlisted/National Guard suckers rotated in and out of combat 4, 5, 6 times each.

        IOW, had Bush been forced to rely on a draft, Iraq and Afghanistan would not have turned into the long-term bloody mess they did. But having the luxury of relying 100% on volunteers he knew Americans would not get too excited — after all, the volunteers asked for it. That’s what “volunteer” means.

        Comment by Denis | October 18, 2013 | Reply

        • Points taken, but I would also point out that the Vietnam war was similarly long term and far bloodier, yet, as per your points, it made use of conscription.

          Comment by aletho | October 18, 2013 | Reply

  2. Iraq war, the National Guard went due to Bush, they are not suppose to go overseas.
    Don’t call them suckers, they join by thinking they will help by national disasters and in case we would be attacked by foreign military. Bush changed the rules.
    He was in the Guard so he would not be send to Vietnam, Cheney bailed out too and
    So did Clinton. What does Omama know about war? The generals will do everything to keep armed conflict going. I guess they have invested money in the weapon industry.
    But if their was a draft again there will be more protest against wars. Now too many people don’t know what is going on and a lot of them they don’t care, it is not their
    family. It never happened before that they would get so many deployments, so you get burn out.
    I did see a laughing John McCain arrive at Clark AFB, not knowing that he would become such an idiot to want to keep on going to war.
    We did not win nor did the Vietnamese, the misery after the fall of Saigon, the baby lift with the disaster of the C5 crashing and so many children died.
    A country destroyed and poisened with agent orange and many dangerous weapons still in the ground, so children are still getting killed.
    It is still a communist country but they receive many tourists.
    Now we are dealing with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, two other countries destroyed and millions killed or maimed. We had to bury thousands of our troops and thousands are wounded, families torn apart.
    My son was in both places, drafted from the Guard. Now he is home, back in school, marriage shot to hell, after being gone for 7 years.
    We have a good bond and talk often, I know what war is. I was very little when the bombs drop and we had to run and hide in the cellar under our house, lucky we had one. People getting killed, shortages on everything, food was rationed, winter 44/45 Lots of people starved to death and it was so cold. Gas and electric were shut down.
    People cutting up furniture for heat even doors to rooms. No dog or cat was alive,
    My grandfather tried to catch sparrows.for some reason Sweden was not allowed by the Americans to dro loaves of bread. That happened much later.
    Now the remark of obama that veterans should take out private insurance, some one said, but they are wounded soldiers, his cold reply, they went voluntarily.
    So much for our commander in chief giving about our military.
    I wondered would there have been e baby lift if their would have been a lot of baby’s of American fathers. Just like by the baby lift. The next flight about 300 children arrived. The gym was set up for the arrival of all the little children, some baby’s.
    It were heck tick weeks, worked long and many hours for a long time than the last planetook off with the children who had been hospitalized. It was a long ride back to the states, picking up ore children in Guam and Wake Island,
    There was a remarkable German doctor who came along, he had a group of children who were amputees. He was not allowed to enter Manilla to take a flight there to
    War is Hell. Politicians don’t give a damn. And I believe the generals love their war games.

    Comment by Maria | October 20, 2013 | Reply

    • @Maria: Don’t call them suckers, they join by thinking they will help by national disasters and in case we would be attacked by foreign military. Bush changed the rules.

      That sounds like a sucker to me. I speak from experience. I enlisted on my 18th birthday believing the BS about dominoes and how important it was to fight communist aggression in SE Asia. I was a patriotic, well intentioned idiot aka sucker — but I learned something important: never trust your own government because your own government is nothing but a gaggle of self-serving politicians. It’s called “democracy.”

      Comment by Denis | October 20, 2013 | Reply

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