The war in Iraq has raised serious fiscal, social, and constitutional problems. Politicians are generally unwilling to mention, let alone deal with them, but their urgency will require attention soon enough. A tax–one specifically tied to warmaking–may help all three problems. Offering such a solution does not come trippingly from me, for taxation, as is often and intelligently noted, can be destructive. But some things should be destroyed, and one of them is detachment from the realities of ill-advised and unwinnable wars–a detachment that undermines basic principles of American life. Ironically, constitutional principles founded on resistance to taxation may require taxation to counter dangers to important parts of them.
Prewar visions of a smooth transition to UN control and a timely US withdrawal have given way to an interminable guerrilla war that has thus far cost over 2800 dead, almost 20,000 wounded, and approximately a quarter trillion dollars. Many analysts see a US presence in Iraq for years to come. Amid these figures is the unsettling issue of who is suffering the casualties. Since the end of conscription in 1973, large portions of the middle classes and almost all affluent strata know nothing of military service, let alone combat, except as family lore passed down by fathers, more often by grandfathers. The military is not composed of the poor, as many critics (who rarely themselves have served) often contend, but clearly the upper-middle classes and above have not increased their contribution to the nation since the war began. Many previous wars had touched almost all Americans, either through civic virtue, conscription, or noblesse oblige, but the distribution of casualties today makes the Vietnam War, despite all its exemptions and evasions, seem almost egalitarian in contrast.
This leads to a critical issue, one with moral and constitutional importance. We have a protracted war with little if any cost–financial or personal–to large portions of the American people; a war that is no longer supported by a large majority of the public, but which has fostered only tepid opposition from the occasional politician and a motley assortment of protesters, who usually express greater concern for unrelated social causes than for the war itself. As disconcerting as this is, it comes after erosion of the constitutional principle of congressional control of warmaking, a process that has gone on steadily for several decades now. We face a morally troubling and constitutionally dangerous state of affairs in which, owing to the absence of apparent costs to the majority of people, a president can begin and continue a war despite widespread opposition to it.
Principles of constitutional controls and social justice call for remedy. A return to conscription might be one, but numerous problems come readily to mind. Inducting, training, and deploying a more representative range of American youth, including relatively privileged strata, would outrage parents, who don’t want their children placed in harm’s way, and appall military leaders, who could well surmise the deleterious effects on discipline and cohesion. Furthermore, conscription would do nothing to ease pressing fiscal problems. Nor would pay incentives aimed at drawing in the more privileged offer significant relief. Years would be required to attract sufficient numbers; youth would unlikely respond amid an unpopular war; and fiscal problems would only worsen.
Perhaps disincentives on warmaking would work where incentives to serve would fail. Taxation on privileged, largely aloof strata, structured to pay the looming war debt and written so as to end with a war, would have several benefits. Obviously, a war tax would help pay for our adventure in transforming the Middle East. Second, it would spread the costs of war more equitably throughout American society. Third, it would lead to formidable though not insurmountable opposition to warmaking that is not based on sound assessment of the nation’s security. Perhaps most importantly, a war tax would lead to greater public awareness of the costs of war, which in turn would yield greater public involvement in foreign policy, constitutional principles, and the decision to go to war in the first place.
Many will gleefully and spitefully seize upon the idea of taxing the upper strata with only notional interest in the moral and constitutional principles that frame the argument here. Similarly, others will denounce a new tax with little if any reference to or concern with those same principles. Without spreading the costs of war across the social system, the new century may well see, perhaps after short-lived respites (during which romantic views of war and America’s mission in the world will inevitably return), further ill-advised wars as well as continued destruction of constitutional controls on warmaking and democratic involvement in foreign policy. And perhaps all Americans will look upon our young soldiers as more than regiments of expendable sepoys and Hessians whose deaths are adequately appreciated by a few moments on the news.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is a veteran of the Vietnam War and author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
© BRIAN M. DOWNING