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The Draft as Collateral Damage


Twenty-three years ago this month, after Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter reinstated draft registration in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I sent a letter to the Selective Service System–cc’d to the US Attorney in Buffalo, NY–politely informing them that I would be declining their offer of registration. When the FBI finally came to my door two years later, in Berkeley, California, I reiterated my intent to refuse to comply with the draft laws.

I claim no special heroism for this stance: hundreds of young males nationwide did likewise, as did thousands of non-young or non-males trying to gum up the works of enforcement. The sabotage was widespread. Lists of local registrants were posted in public places in an attempt, anticipating the later public service of John Ashcroft, to encourage friends and neighbors to turn noncompliant men of that delicate age in to the relevant authorities. This didn’t work either. When I–ahem–obtained the list that had been posted in the Alameda County courthouse, serving Berkeley and Oakland, the law-abiding registrants named therein included Ira Michael Heyman–then chancellor at UC Berkeley, and who despite being decades too old to receive a draft notice was evidently possessed of such patriotism that he registered several times in different zip codes. Also among the East Bay’s stalwart obeyers of law was one “Pinhead, Zippy T.”

Ah, but draft resistance in the 1980s wasn’t all fun, games and petty theft. People actually went to jail for it. In 1983, eighteen young men were indicted on felony charges stemming from refusal to register. Eleven were convicted. A couple spent time in prison. The main reason I wasn’t among them, as far as I can tell, is that my Congressional representative backed me up. Ron Dellums, at that time the Representative for California’s Ninth Congressional District in Berkeley and Oakland, sent a letter suggesting to the abovementioned US Attorney, Sal Martoche, that he spend his office’s time pursuing the increasingly violent local representatives of drug cartels rather than peace activists.

So it was surprising to me to see one of Dellums’ Black Caucus heirs, Harlem’s Rep. Charlie Rangel, raise an apparently serious suggestion that the draft be reinstated. I can’t say I disagree with his intent. The old adage “Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight” is as valid as it was when the Wobblies first uttered it a century ago, aside from needing one obvious update in this age of enlisted women and Condi Rice. Statisticians have sometimes disputed the assertion that the US military’s lower ranks are overwhelmingly populated by African-Americans relative to society at large. But no one disputes the military’s class disparity. Rich kids don’t become grunts. The bulk of US soldiers who actually risk injury are there because that was the job available to them. Meanwhile, those who make the decisions to go to war are unlikely to see their loved ones die in the attendant hostilities, the pathetic story of Ted Olson notwithstanding.

So I find it understandable that Rangel would say, as he did in a CNN interview, that “I think, if we went home and found out that there were more families concerned about their kids going off to war, there would be more cautiousness and more willingness to work with the international community, instead of just saying that it’s my way or the highway.” How likely would G.W. Bush be to commit troops to Iraq if he knew Jenna might be walking point in Bagdad?

OK, maybe that’s a bad example.

Rangel’s argument has holes in it large enough to allow easy passage of a lemon-yellow Hummer H2 with fully inflated tires. One could point out that the present crop of warmongers found it easy enough to escape the clutches of the Selective Service System before 1975. One could point out that most pols already sacrifice their families on the alter of career. One could point out that while the vast majority of rape victims are female, no one is proposing laws that would send one male in four to the NYPD basement for the Giuliani broomhandle treatment. Some evils are better abolished than distributed evenly.

But forget the details: there’s something rotten at the heart of Rangel’s pitch. Though he dresses it up in terms of social contract and shared sacrifice that would make even an unreconstructed communitarian fascist like Amitai Etzioni retch, what Rangel is saying is “change your policies or lose your children.” He could help develop the growing number of Americans who don’t want to fight this war, but instead, he’s taking hostages. He isn’t quite piloting a 737 into the Capitol to make his point, but the difference is at this point one of degree alone, and has a potential US death toll far outstripping that of 9/11/2001.

Note to draft-age men in Harlem: don’t look to your Representative for support should you take a principled stand when the draft board comes calling.

CHRIS CLARKE is the editor of Faultline: the magazine of the California environment. He can be reached at:


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