Ira Smolensky


                   In search of citizen-soldiers, and peace



         That was the sound of Charles RangelÕs recent proposal for a military draft crashing inconsequentially to the ground.

         Rangel, U.S. Representative from New YorkÕs 15th District, and a Democrat, also proposed a draft back in 2003. 

         At that time, RangelÕs effort focused primarily on the class bias of our volunteer armed forces.  Wars, Rangel argued, should be fought by the citizenry as a whole.  The volunteer army, on the other hand, has utilized market forces to produce a military resembling that of the Vietnam war era, when well off kids could (and usually did) avoid service by going to college, leaving the battlefield largely to the poor and lower middle class.

         The argument Rangel made last week was somewhat similar, though, with the Iraq war now thoroughly discredited, his emphasis was more on peace than socio-economic equity.  To put it in a nutshell, Rangel asserted that, if all our kids, including those of the economic and political elite, were equally liable to serve on the battlefield, then the nation would be much less likely to engage in ill-conceived wars.

         In a rare display of party unity, RangelÕs fellow Democrats—now the Congressional majority-- immediately distanced themselves from his proposal, making clear that it would not even be considered by the 110th Congress.  Democrats did so without consulting polls, or even putting their finger to the wind to test the currents of public opinion.  They already know what the American people think about a draft— itÕs thumbs down, all the way.  And so they abandoned RangelÕs baby on the Capitol steps, lest Republicans use the issue of a draft to bludgeon their way back into public favor.

         Needless to say, Republicans are of a like mind.  The 2006 midterm election was bad enough without embracing politically suicidal causes such as a draft or even national service.

         And so Charles Rangel and the handful of enterprising commentators who take his idea seriously find themselves on a cul-de-sac of political irrelevance.  For now, theyÕll probably stay there.

         But I donÕt think it will always be so.

         Because Representative Rangel has a point.

         As an old timer who came of political age during the war in Vietnam, and who has, sadly, seen history repeat itself, I think Rangel is correct in his assumption that the way we select our fighting men and women has a deep effect on our decision to go to war.  In the case of Vietnam and in this most recent conflict in Iraq, we rolled all too comfortably into war in part by putting the burden on those least able or inclined to speak out against bad policy.  The result in both cases has been tragedy, the full depth of which we do not yet know.

         I also think Rangel is more in tune with the intent of the nationÕs founders than are his critics.

         While fully cognizant of the uses that might be made of self interest, politically through checks and balances, and economically through the free market, our founders also thought that civic virtue—including the willingness to fight for what is right-- was indispensable to the health of the republic.  In fact, for them, the term citizen probably implied soldier. 

         On the other hand, there is no evidence that the founders were lovers of war. 

         This, I believe, is just what Rangel has in mind.  He thinks a well-ordered draft will lead both to a more virtuous citizenry—willing to fight when necessary-- and to a citizenry more inclined to reject the clarion calls of spurious wars.

         The fact that the notion is somewhat old-fashioned does not necessarily make it wrong.