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Paul Buchanan: On the subject of the Draft

On the subject of the Draft, and the Dark Truth about (Neo-) Imperialism.

By Paul G. Buchanan


Recent calls to revive universal military conscription in the US open the door to some hard questions about the American propensity for war. Led by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), Democrats have floated the idea of the draft in order to score political points. After all, if the US is to sustain its current level and tempo of military operations abroad, the volunteer military will be stretched increasingly thin and be hard pressed to replenish even its reserves. This means more causalities in war and the possibility of defeat in foreign conflicts if the manpower, weapons and training are not up the task. A draft would not only ease the overall burden on the volunteers and professional soldiers, but would spread the burden more equitably amongst socio-economic and ethnic groups.

To be sure, people with influence and connections will be able to evade or escape combat service, as was the case with the President, Vice-President and several of the major architects of the Iraq invasion during the Vietnam War. Others will simply flee to Canada or parts of the world not interested in extraditing conscientious objectors and draft-dodgers to the US war machine.

Over the long term, that may turn the tide of public opinion against foreign military adventures. But over the short term the burden of sacrifice will be spread more widely than is currently the case, thereby easing the strain on a volunteer military that is having problems meeting and sustaining personnel quotas (in spite of the president’s authorization for manpower increases for both the Army and Marines).

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The peacetime military is a thing of the past, and calls to patriotism no longer suffice given the current level of US military combat operations abroad. Yet the underlining assumption, shared by Republicans and Democrats alike, is that US can and must sustain its foreign military operations given the post 9/11 threat environment.

That begs a larger question: why the current level of US military operations abroad? Most would agree that the post 9/11 attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was just (the UN Security Council approved the invasion and continues to support combat and non-combat nation-building efforts in that country). Beyond that, the justification and rationale for the foreign deployment of US combat forces is open to debate. To be sure, special operations missions against al-Qaeda operatives who have a record of targeting US interests, such as recent operations in Somalia, deserve public support. But other ventures are more problematic.

For example, even if one ignores the false pretenses underlining the rush to invade Iraq, it is not clear that the invasion and subsequent occupation had anything to do with the war on Islamicist terrorism or whether it has made the US safer from terrorist attack. Some would argue the negative in both instances, seeing that the loss of US life in Iraq is greater than that of 9/11, or that the relative safety the US has enjoyed since that fateful day has had little to do with Iraq and come at a great price in terms of civil liberties and individual and collective freedoms of expression and movement driven by the tightening of internal security constraints on the American population. Thus, the questions remains: why the need to sustain or increase current levels of military operations on foreign soil?

The answer, in a word, is imperialism. The disgust with and repudiation of that word by most of the US public is where the contradiction and quandary of US military adventurism begins to be seen. Most Americans do not believe themselves, or the country as a whole, to be imperialist. They will note the traditionally isolationist character of the country, or the fact that that the US all to often gets “pulled in” to others people’s fights against its better judgment or desire.

After all, the US was pulled into World Wars One and Two to save its allies, and was pulled into the Indochinese conflict because the French colonial exercise was dying a bloody death. It was the US, in the face of European paralysis, that saved Croatians, Muslim Kosovars, and ethnic Albanians from the genocidal depredations of the Milosevic regime in post-Yugoslav Serbia. Given that track record, who in fairness can rightfully accuse the US of having (neo-) imperialist ambitions?

The answer is unfortunate. Many people of fair mind, both inside and outside of the US, now see the ongoing military campaigns against foreign enemies real and imagined as no more than an exercise in imperialist ambition. It may not have the exact same character of the Roman, British or French imperialisms that preceded it, but its thrust is the same: to dominate otherwise sovereign peoples in order to impose a set of preferred economic, political and social values.

Oftentimes such imposition brings with it political oppression, social anomaly and economic exploitation, regardless of the purity of intent on the part of the imperial power. The consequences are well understood, but the motivations, at least in the US, remain unclear. It is not just about exploiting oil, or about defending freedom, or about promoting democracy or about national security. It is about imposing a set of conditions in foreign lands that is conducive to the achievement of all of those, and other self-interested US national requirements as well.

After enjoying its golden age in the late 19th century, the concept of imperialism fell into disrepute, and was pilloried after the post-colonial struggles for independence of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It is thus a concept and word fraught with negative connotations in the modern and post-modern eras, standing alongside racism, sexism and anti-Semitism in the pantheon of deplorable beliefs. No wonder US citizens are quick to distance themselves from the notion that they, as a political community, are in fact imperialist.

But to do deny the awful truth they must disconnect the dots. For all the talk about weaning the US off its oil dependence on foreign sources, or concerns about job outsourcing to third world states or Chinese purchasing of American debt, the US public appears unable or unwilling to understand that their—largely extravagant, by global standards—lifestyles are supported by the current tempo and scope of military operations abroad. It is in the arrogance of forced imposition, such as in the Bush administration’s claims that it is trying to “democratize” the Muslim world and rid the globe of “failed and rogue” states, that the imperialist ambition of the US political class is revealed.

Yet in the reach of US popular culture and the pervasive influence of US-styled consumerist mentalities abroad, and in the abject divorce between the necessities of material existence in the US and the realities of having to dominate, one way or another, otherwise contrary populations whose resources are needed to sustain those lifestyles, is where the disconnect between political and popular discourse in the US becomes clear.

The US population seems unable to grasp the fact that the US is hated abroad not because of its purported freedoms and material lifestyles, but because it maintains those standards by imposing itself economically and militarily abroad. Foreign resentment is not jealously of what the US has, but on what it prevents them from having—autonomy in their own affairs.

The bottom line is clear. The US public needs to take a long hard look at itself, its leaders and its foreign policy, and admit or deny its imperialist orientation. If denied, the US has no rationale for pursuing its military adventures in far-off places unless directly threatened.

Thus no draft would be needed, and resources (now running into the tens of trillions of dollars) could be re-directed towards intelligence-gathering and special operations focused on countering the irregular threats that are so pervasive at the moment, and towards the geostrategic threats posed by emerging powers like China and a resurgent Russia. That would mean a diminishing of the American material lifestyle and a decrease in US business profitability abroad as the US adjusts to its role as something less than global superpower. It is questionable whether the American public can accept that compromise.

If admitted, the imperialist character of the American nation requires the institution of a military draft so that the US can continue to sustain its current level of operations abroad. Since its pervasive cultural and economic influence abroad has engendered the Islamicist terrorist response (as well as the resentment of many others, as the leftward swing in Latin America indicates), denial of imperialism at a military level will result in American defeat (rather than orderly retreat).

Thus the US public has a stark choice: it is either all or nothing when it comes to playing the neo-imperialist game. This should be the main issue debated in Congress and town halls throughout the country. Hence the fundamental question for all Americans remains the one that no politician or indeed, the country itself does not want to address: are we, or are we not imperialist? In the answer to that question lies the solution to the issue of universal conscription.


Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.


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