Somewhere in the vicinity of the Student Union Bldg. at UNT a good forensic scientist could probably still find the carbonized remains of my draft card. This is where we gloriously and ceremonially burned them as tiny effigies of the war and what we saw as a crumbling order. As fire-breathing student protesters we weren’t stoic in our beliefs, we were Dionysian, the rabble in revelry. We were young and naive and idealistic and totally wrong.
To be sure, the draft was corrupt as it has always been but in a real way the draft was a big factor in ending the war in Vietnam. I don’t know if anyone has noticed the complete absence of protest over our two wars in the Middle East. It’s hard to notice things that you don’t see. But I noticed because it has been such a contrast to what I saw in 1967 and 68 on college campuses. Universities were the seedbeds of the protests that eventually spilled onto the streets of America and forced an end to the Vietnam war. Certainly our schools are appropriate places for the expression of youthful intellectualism and students have always been at the forefront of protest for many causes. But the young college students in the 60’s were particularly motivated to speak out against the war because they were only a paper-thin student deferment away from a soggy death in the jungle. It was their sweet little academic asses on the line.
With our modern new all-volunteer army the tensions aren’t as high on college campuses. Alas, no sense of urgency to end the military larks that have wasted our country’s cash and cred and kids. We could make comparisons all day long about the relative injustice, stupidity, wastefulness of the wars in Vietnam and the Mid-East. Vietnam was bloodier but also cheaper depending on how you count the costs. They were both sad examples of corporate imperialism but nobody wants to stress this obvious fact. Both of these wars served the oligarchs because they prevented important and long-awaited social reforms and preserved the status quo. LBJ’s Great Society was crippled by Vietnam and the Gulf Wars have caused us to take our eye off the ball in the area of energy. We have spent all of our money and attention on unnecessary wars designed to benefit and perpetuate the petro-military complex. We have hocked ourselves to the oil companies instead of moving forward with development of a long-range, renewable, clean energy program. This is a distraction that will likely cost our nation primacy in the clean energy future of our world.
And it’s all because we don’t have a draft. Our military adventures might have never happened and would surely have ended five or six years ago if we were sending middle and upper-class young men and women to fight the Saracen. Especially if they were picked fairly and at random. I may sound like I’m warming up to throw a pitch for the re-instatement of the draft, but I’m not. If we had a draft it would be the same corrupt and unfair system of discriminatory conscription that caused me to burn my draft card. The rich will find a way to buy their way out. What The Poet’s Eye sees as the solution is Universal National Service. Nobody could buy their way out. Even the disabled would be required to serve according to their capacity.
One of the New Frontier programs that was essentially derailed and forgotten by the Vietnam war was the Peace Corps. Besides being just a generous and good-natured idea, the Peace Corps could have been the perfect segue into Universal National Service. If Everyone is required to give two years of National Service and they can choose whether to be in the military or perform civilian service, it would go a long way toward solving some of our diciest problems as well as correct the economic discrimination in our all-volunteer system.
Perhaps I have the temerity to suggest such an obvious plan because I’m like the student non-protesters on our campuses today, I don’t have a dog in this race. I’m in the same position as the old men that I used to mock for sending young men to war. But I’m not suggesting sending anybody to war but to service. This country has serious work ahead of it. Putting our crumbling infrastructure in order alone will take an army. Plus we have to create an entirely new clean energy infrastructure. We have roads and parks to maintain and solar panels and batteries need to be made. And we have people hanging around unemployed because they are still waiting in line to get the same old jobs that aren’t coming back. This is a sensitive issue because at this moment every American worker is looking across the table at six Chinamen who will do the same job for the same pay. It’s a new world and if we don’t adapt to it, it will leave us behind. We’ll inevitably all be on exactly the same level as a Chinese worker, if we are lucky. If we don’t re-organize our system, the World economy will relieve us of the task. To adapt we are going to have to change our system and to make these changes we will need willing hands and minds. Universal National Service could provide both the human resources and the Educational Moment that we need to turn inevitable World economic changes to our advantage.
What do I mean by Educational Moment? Americans have no rites of passage into citizenship unless you count the Super Bowl or munching your first Big Mac. Our public school system has served us fairly well with regard to providing a commonality of experience and indoctrination but the public schools are bound in their pedagogical bad habits and haven’t been meeting the needs of the times. If every young man and woman in America was asked for two years of their youth and energy and commitment, it would provide that Educational Moment with a common experience which would hopefully inspire an ethic of community service throughout their lives.
Sarge, I’m only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen
And I always carry a purse
I got eyes like a bat, and my feet are flat, and my asthma’s getting worse
Yes, think of my career, my sweetheart dear, and my poor old invalid aunt
Besides, I ain’t no fool, I’m a-goin’ to school
And I’m working in a DEE-fense plant–Phil Ochs