When I came back from Vietnam in 1971, there was a new program in the Army called VOLAR. That’s short for volunteer Army, because the military would prefer an arcane acronym over plain language any day of the week.
The draft was being dumped because it was being blamed for the sorry state of the US military in Vietnam, where the armed forces were melting down with low morale, poor discipline, and generalized mental illness often taking the form of substance abuse. The draft, it was reasoned, was tapping unreliable sectors for unmotivated troops who were too quick to rebel against being press-ganged into an actual shooting war.
The same people who applied this scalpel-like logic were, of course, completely unprepared to assess the impact of the character of the war itself on troops:
(1) a war that had been misrepresented as a defense of America;
(2) a war against a tenacious enemy with a home-court advantage, and
(3) a war with a geo-strategic disposition such that a US defeat was nearly certain.
On top of all that, millions of civilians were killed, before and after we burned their houses and slaughtered their livestock and poisoned their land, and many of us began to question the morality of how exactly the war was being conducted.
None of this–applying the logic that the draft was the problem–could ever in a million years really account for a troop growing weary of slogging through dioxin-stained wilderness for a month at a time without a bath, subjected to being picked off or maimed in an unpredictable, terror-stricken instant, smoking God-knows-what to take the edge off his conscience and his frazzled nerves, and filling his idle time with fantasies of shooting his officers.
No, indeed. It was the draft.
The draft was a public relations problem at home. No parent is keen to surrender the fruit of his or her loins to an impersonal government, at an age where the youngster can barely grow a moustache, and have him shipped home in a wheelchair or a box or crazy as hell. No spouse wants a partner sent back that way. No kid wants a parent sent back that way.
Based on the faulty logic that associated conscription with political defeat, and upon the real rebellion against conscription into an immoral military adventure, the US Department of Defense decided that it needed for troops to sign themselves in voluntarily. Pay was increased. Quarters were improved. Many abuses were rousted out. More medals and merit badges were authorized. Services were increased. The general economy went into the crapper, and voila! VOLAR was a success.
Oh yeah. They also withdrew from Vietnam. That, too.
Today, there is an additional benefit to war apologists of a volunteer force. Using the consumer culture aversion to and overwhelming lack of familiarity with the basic rules of actual logic, war boosters now trot out the “volunteer military” as justification for any hare-brained, wicked, or illegal military adventure in which they decide to engage.
That justification goes like this: Every troop signs on the dotted line without a gun pressed to his or her head, knowing that the armed forces are used for armed conflict. Therefore, neither they nor we have any right to complain about the conditions they might face, since everyone knows that war is hell.
Something like that. “So stop whining.”
The sly thing about this argument is that it is used today against people like me, who want the occupation of Iraq ended and the troops–one of whom is my son–sent back to their home duty stations.
Our argument to bring the troops home is based not on the conditions, but on the faked premises for and illegality of the war itself. Our complaint about the conditions, about our loved ones being exposed to hardship and danger, is based on the fact that the whole adventure is hare-brained, wicked, and illegal. This counterfeit rebuttal about “volunteer military” has about as much to do with the stupidity, immorality, and criminality of the war as the validity of a driver’s license has to do with the model and make of a car.
Note, we haven’t been saying bring them home now from their mission to do holy work. We have said bring our loved ones out of an incompetently executed, illegal war that was entered into based on lies and fabrications. Jumping off into a discussion about our loved ones’ volunteer status is a way to duck that last part… that part about incompetence, illegality, lies, fabrications… stuff like that.
To make our argument that a volunteer military does not magically waive international law, commons sense, and common decency, we need not even digress to point out that all “volunteering” is not equal; that the “choice” between working in a shit job for poverty wages or joining the Army is not quite the same a “choice” between going to Harvard Law School or joining the Army. Just like the choice between being drafted into Vietnam or going to jail is not the same as the choice between being drafted into Vietnam or getting a special slot assigned to you in the Texas Air National Guard and being allowed to skip drills to attend alcoholic frat parties.
Yeah, that “volunteer” definition can be pretty sly, too. It reminds me of those Galois-smoking existentialists arguing that we are always free no matter what because we can opt out through suicide. A pretty clever conceit, but not exactly something most of us rely on for day-to-day decisions.
At the end of the day, here’s the real deal. Volunteer or not, in the United States, for those who haven’t checked into this subject, the military NEVER decides when we will or won’t go to war. The people who “volunteer” that decision are civilians, i.e., Congress and the President (unless of course, a cowed, spineless, opportunistic, anemometric Congress abdicates all its power to a semi-literate demagogue in the Oval Office).
So toss that smelly old red herring into the trash, will you, and carry it out to the curb.
STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and of the upcoming book “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is a member of the BRING THEM HOME NOW! coordinating committee, a retired Special Forces master sergeant, and the father of an active duty soldier. Email for BRING THEM HOME NOW! is email@example.com.
Goff can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org