Monday, April 27, 2015

"The Draft" gives a straightforward history of military conscription (male-only) in the US, on PBS

Monday, April 27, PBS aired the 50-minute documentary from Partisan Pictures by Aaron Matthews, “The Draft”.  The film is a straightforward account of military (and male-only) conscription in US History.
The film opens by looking at US military situations today, having emerged from long wars in Iraq and (almost) Afghanistan, not too successfully, it turns out (given ISIS).  It is difficult to retain capable forces at strength.  Toward the end, the film shows military recruiters prowling the streets of San Francisco (not as ironic as it used to be).  In fact, some see the "Stop-Loss" (March 29. 2008) policy of redeployments as effectively a backdoor draft, since poor people are more likely to have enlisted in the first place.  

Then the film introduces a Rutgers history professor, Jennfier Mittelstadt, who finally says that we had stopped the debate on whether citizenship comes with the responsibility of shared risk and sacrifice.  That duty involved taking orders from your government for two years (longer during WWII), losing freedom, and possibly undergoing death or dismemberment. She says we ought to consider having the debate again.  Stirring that debate is one of the points of my own series of three "Do Ask, Do Tell" books.  Donald Rumsfeld insists that the plusses of an all-volunteer force outweigh the downside, and we won’t see a draft again in the foreseeable future.
The film goes back to the Revolutionary War time.  While colonies expected men to be ready to join militia with their own weapons (the source of the Second Amendment, maybe), the Continental Congress. In the North, the draft became divisive during the War Between the States, as men could buy their way out, from immigrants who would fight for them.  Draft riots (“The Gangs of New York”) would result.

During World War I, Woodrow Wilson brought the draft back, but he put the decision as to “who should go and who doesn’t have to” in the hands of local draft boards, that knew their communities.  The Selective Service System still exists today, and I actually wrote to it during my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book doing research. The film doesn’t mention that Wilson made criticizing the draft a form of sedition.
The draft loomed big during World War II, after the shock of Pearl Harbor, and again during Korea.
John Kennedy wanted to defer husbands and fathers, but that idea died when LBJ took over, and we were left with a system of student deferments, after Johnson started increasing draft calls toward the end of 1965. 
The documentary covers how the student deferment system led to an over-representation of the poor and minorities, especially in combat arms, exposing fault lines even as the Civil Rights movement started.  17000 draftees died in Vietnam, and many more came back maimed. 
It also covers the gradual increase in dissent over Vietnam after 1966, with the controversy over the “crime” of draft card burning. 
In 1969, under Nixon, Selective Service went to a lottery system, which tended to bring the draft home to more upper income Americans, who started to question the War even more, putting pressure on Nixon to end the active war (in 1973) and draft.  Yet, only eight years before, LBJ had articulated the domino theory, of protecting freedom from communism as “the enemy”.
I’ve often told my own story, of taking the physical three times, and going from 4-F to 1-A, and getting the draft call in 1968, but enlisting two weeks early for two years to reduce my risk of combat as someone with an advanced degree.  Privilege worked in my case.  I took BCT at Fort Jackson, SC.

There's a scene where West Point cadets debate whether military (or any other structured government) service should be an obligation of citizenship, and there is wide disagreement among the cadets. They also field the question, if you disagree with the country on being in Vietnam, was going to Canada and emigrating the "courageous" thing to do, rather than take a deferment. 
The official site from PBS is here.  A DVD is available.
There was no mention of the repealed military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and who the draft dealt with gays in the 1960s.  (The Army actually stopped “asking” in 1965.)   But after 9/11, Charles Moskos, one of the architects of DADT, publicly favored conscription along with ending the DADT policy and military gay ban altogether. 

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