Three years after the invasion of Iraq, the US does not feel remotely like a country at war. Nearly 20,000 Americans soldiers have been killed or injured to date, but the comfortable classes find it shockingly easy to forget about the conflict for weeks at a time. Most middle-class professionals, academics and journalists do not have relatives or friends serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. We have not been
called on to make sacrifices, financial or otherwise. We hear less and less about the occupation on the evening news and even in the big cities it is rare to encounter an anti-war demonstration. The third-anniversary protest staged in New York last weekend was an especially shabby assemblage of moth-eaten radicals.

The chief reason that the war remains so remote to the lives of middle-class Americans is the absence of a military draft. This is a subject that no one seems to want to talk about. Supporters of the war certainly do not want to talk about it. President George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the vice-president, react angrily to any suggestion that a draft might be needed because they know that the prospect of conscription would make their decision to invade Iraq even more unpopular. Having lived through Vietnam and shirked the draft themselves, they understand that if people anywhere near their own station in life were forced to fight, any remaining support for wars of arguable necessity would dry up and blow away.

Nor does the military want to discuss a draft, even though it is increasingly overstretched, required to rely on declining enlistment standards and “stop loss” orders to maintain even the current, insufficient troop levels. The Pentagon’s reason for avoiding the subject is its plausible assumption that conscription would yield a less pliable and effective fighting force. Many senior officers remember the Vietnam-era breakdown of discipline and morale, which did massive damage to the military’s reputation within society and took decades to repair.

Finally, the young men who might be called do not want to contemplate having to kill, die or be maimed in a war that inspires little idealism. Nor do their families want to dwell on such possibilities. In the upscale sectors of American society, there remains a primal antipathy to military culture, which has only been heightened by revelations about torture at Abu Ghraib and ongoing discrimination against homosexuals in the armed forces.

Contributing to the conspiracy of silence on all sides is the gross unfairness of how we now distribute the risk and burden of fighting for one’s country. The current arrangement is entirely consistent with periods when the US had a draft that the sons of privilege could readily evade, by hiring “replacements” during the civil war, or getting an educational deferment or lobbying one’s draft board during the Vietnam era. Once again, young people without good opportunities in life are handling the fighting and dying for those with better things to do – only this time, there is not even a pretence of shared responsibility. Such injustice is hard to face up to in a country where social equality remains the civic religion.

Because conscription appeals to no one, the US has lived with the so-called All Volunteer Force since the end of the Vietnam war. With the nation at peace or involved only in low-grade interventions that entailed limited risk, not having a draft worked relatively well. The military made itself attractive as an avenue of social mobility, offering members of the lower-middle class technical training and educational opportunity in exchange for tours of duty. As the cold war ended, reductions in the levels of troops that were needed allowed the armed forces to raise their standards and become more selective.

But Iraq has changed all that. A soldier’s chances of being killed in Iraq are somewhat lower than they were in Vietnam, but this does not make it safer for combatants. The risk of being injured in Iraq is significantly higher than it was in Vietnam – 3.1 per cent as opposed to 1.8 per cent, according to Newsweek. Thanks to striking advances in field medicine, soldiers who would have died in any other war now survive but they often do so with catastrophic, life-altering injuries.

Dawning comprehension of just how dangerous service in Iraq is has made it harder and harder for the military to meet its personnel goals. Despite raising cash bonuses to $10,000 (£5,700, €8,300) and college scholarships to $70,000, the army missed its recruiting target last year by nearly 10 per cent. It has now even stopped routinely discharging people with drug and alcohol problems.

There are some who argue that America should bring back the draft because of the ennobling effects of military service – class mixing, personal growth, better mutual understanding across the civilian-military divide, and so on. These are worthy goals, but not really sufficient to justify depriving young people of their freedom in the absence of a true national need.

What does justify it is the scale of death and injury in Iraq, which makes relying on an all-volunteer force painfully undemocratic and unfair. A resumption of the draft would be everyone’s nightmare. But let us be honest enough to admit that not having a draft is not working either.

The writer is editor of Slate.com

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