A Draft in the Air:
War and Social Class
By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.) 11/30/06
I remember the military draft. As a small child it hung over my head like a dark cloud that would one day send a lightning bolt to strike me down. When I was 12 years old, my parents loaded my brother and me into our car and drove north to Montreal. Ostensibly it was a quick vacation to an exotic foreign land. But all I remember was watching the American draft dodgers hanging around in parks and panhandling. My parents didn’t really comment—we just went to look.
As a generation with the draft hanging over our heads, staying abreast of world events and American politics wasn’t just a pastime for AP Global Studies geeks. It was a life-or-death issue—and the lives we were talking about were our own. During the fall semester after I returned from that disturbing weekend in Montreal, we shut down our junior high school with a wildcat walkout to protest the Vietnam War. We were fully engaged—thanks to the draft.
What followed was the most intensive democratic engagement this country has known, as millions of young Americans loudly joined the political discourse, undeterred by California governor Ronald Reagan’s call for a “bloodbath” against protestors and the brutal repression that followed around the country, which most famously included the killing of anti-war protestors and bystanders at Jackson State in Mississippi and Kent State in Ohio.
During the 1960s, middle-class kids had an out in the form of college deferments. While in school, they couldn’t get drafted. Hence, as elementary school children, our teachers and parents threatened us with certain death if we fucked up our spelling tests and ruined our chances for college. Once in college, folks tended to stay enrolled right up through grad school, playing hippie during summer breaks. If they went on to be school teachers, they would get another reprieve—and we would get a fresh bunch of unmotivated educators. Education deferments and other scams laid the groundwork for today’s spectacle of middle-aged chicken hawks: gung ho war supporters who would never expose themselves—or, for that matter, their children—to the dangers of war.
Working-class kids without the money or education to get into college got the shaft in the 1960s, as they always have throughout history. Without deferments, they made up the bulk of the infantry and most of Vietnam’s American casualties. Draftees also surpassed the Vietnamese as the primary killers of American military officers, who were often “fragged”—blown up with fragmentation grenades—as they showered.
In 1971, at the behest of liberals seeking to level the playing field and eliminate the death sentence that went along with class immobility, the government eliminated college deferments. Hence, only the rich could avoid military conscription. With the draft hitting middle-class kids, our generation became fully engaged in resisting what we saw as generational warfare with dying old men sending vibrant, alive, young people off to kill and be killed.
I never, it turned out, faced a draft. The Vietnam War ended before I was old enough to be drafted, and Richard Nixon eliminated the draft in 1973 before leaving office. With the draft gone, college students could finally return to focusing on getting stoned, drunk and laid. Even flunking out was once again a viable life option. Politically, we no longer needed to be engaged. The Me Generation was born. Fuck the world—it’s none of my business. Let the good times roll. By the year 2000, when George W. Bush took over the presidency and ushered in our new permanent warfare state, only 13 percent of eligible young voters bothered to vote.
This, however, wasn’t the case for poor kids who couldn’t afford college, especially after the Reagan years of tax cuts for the rich and education cuts for the rest of us. Suddenly the military became a default college-aid package for America’s poor and working-class students. And it became a gateway to a career for everyone else left behind by a high-tech job market, and by the economic displacement brought on by global trade and the United States’ integration into the sweatshop economy.
Then came the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Americans are once again dying. But middle-class college students—the ones whose voices ended the Vietnam War—don’t really give a damn. It doesn’t affect them. To see economic draftees as anything other than volunteers means having to face the reality of their own class privileges. Even if they are working three jobs to get through college, they’re still there. They enjoyed a quality education that enabled them to be college-bound. They were able to pull it off. For those who didn’t have the same opportunities, or maybe failed their spelling tests, there’s always the military. The military offers the promise of a college education to those who cannot afford one and are willing to become cannon fodder in order to get one.
There’s one other factor. Social class is ultimately measured by wealth and not earnings. Wealth, however, tends to follow hereditary lines. Since we never paid reparations for slavery, the descendents of slaves are still statistically overrepresented in the lower economic classes, never having had wealth to inherit. And those whose plantations were built with slave labor—that wealth is often still passed down through family lines. Also, throughout our post-slavery history, other factors, such as real estate redlining, which locked African-American veterans out of lucrative government housing loans and grants, kept black folks from gaining wealth. Hence, African Americans, who are statistically more likely to be born to poorer parents and in areas with underfunded schools, are more likely to remain poor and to raise their children in poverty. And these kids are less likely to enjoy the privileges of a college education, and are more likely to join the military as a means to escape poverty.
That’s why Charles Rangel, Harlem’s Representative to Congress and an outspoken progressive, is calling to reinstate the draft. Our current economic draft is unfair. And, in practice, it’s racist. If you’re born African American, you are more likely to suffer from poverty. And if you’re born poor, you’re more likely to die in war. And few wealthier Americans—the one’s whose voices the media listens to—give a shit. You volunteered. They’re shopping. End of story.
Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous Artvoice columns are archived at mediastudy.com.
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