Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What will they do with the draft dodgers?

The idea of rounding up the nation's youth and forcing them to labor in government-assigned jobs is once again back in the news. Coming from an ethics expert, the latest call for a civilian draft squares to a troubling extent with what Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama's chief of staff, suggested in a 2006 book, and isn't too far off from what the president himself has endorsed. It's hard to avoid wondering if we're seeing the first signs of a coming policy -- and what the consequences will be for Americans who say "no."

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Dr. William A. Babcock, a senior ethics professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, proposes:

Every young American citizen, once he or she graduated from high school, would have the responsibility to complete two years of public service. National need would define the nature of such service, but at any given time the variety of jobs likely would be in education, infrastructure repair and maintenance, construction, healthcare, the military, and the arts, for example. Participants, most age 18 to 20, would be provided with room and board and given minimum wage during this two-year period.

In exchange, after a young person had completed this two-year commitment, the United States government would bear the responsibility for paying for that person's two-year junior college education or the first two years of his or her four-year college tuition.

That's pretty close to what then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel put forward in The Plan: Big Ideas for America:

Young people will know that between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, the nation will enlist them for three months of civilian service.

Babcock himself references Obama's own idea for requiring high school students to engage in government-approved service, though his scheme obviously goes farther. It should be apparent, then, that Babcock's talk of forced labor for all Americans isn't just a voice in the wilderness.

Let me be clear: There's not yet any sign that the Obama administration plans to implement civilian conscription. Still, the idea has certainly been entertained by both the president and at least one of his top aides. It's long past time, then, to ask the authors of such plans to engage moral and practical objections to compelled service. Advocates of a draft have yet to tell us how such a scheme differs from slavery. And they have yet to explain why they think the good to be done would outweigh the harm inflicted by punishing and alienating the large numbers of young Americans likely to resist conscription.

Just a few weeks ago, Jim Stillman, a colleague at The Examiner, challenged my rejection of forced labor of any type. Jim didn't like the idea of "comparing the concept of some form of compulsory service to be, alternatively, communistic, fascist, and the equivalent of slavery. It is none of these and deserves consideration on the merits."

Jim went one to explain those various supposed merits of compelled service. But his points didn't in any way refute the charge that compulsory service is slavery. Instead, he seemed to argue that a scheme commonly characterized as slavery can be a good thing -- if used the right way. Frankly, that's all too common for would-be-drafters -- they cheerlead for their schemes while glossing over serious challenges to the idea.

And compulsory service has been characterized as slavery or its equivalent by everybody from Mahatma Gandhi to Albert Einstein to Milton Friedman. True, those critics were usually referring to the military draft. But their objections weren't framed solely in pacifist terms -- they also referred to the value of liberty and challenged the compulsion inherent in conscription.

Clearly, the slavery critics refer to when criticizing conscription isn't the overt transformation of people into property that came with chattel slavery. Compelled service of one sort or another is more like the corvee system of forced labor used by European colonial powers in Africa and by some southern states after the Civil War. But the corvee system was plenty objectionable enough without ever permitting the buying and selling of draftees. According to University of Hawaii political science Prof. R.J. Rummel, in his book, Death by Government:

All the European colonial powers seemed to have extorted labor from their subjects in Africa, Asia, and the New World through such devices. For the Spanish, German, and Portuguese subjects, this was particularly deadly. In some cases the average colonial plantation or estate laborer may not have survived for more than a couple of years. It was sometimes easier or cheaper to "replenish the stock" than provide health maintaining food, clothing, medical care, and living quarters. I suspect that at a rock bottom minimum 10,000,000 colonial forced laborers must have died thusly. The true toll may have been several times this number.

So, granted, Babcock, Emanuel and President Obama aren't talking about chattel slavery, but rather corvee labor. I'm sure, too, that they'd argue that their implementations of the corvee would be much nicer than that in the Belgian Congo. They're probably right -- I doubt that mass murder is on their agenda. But we're still talking about forcing millions of people into service against their will, with their ultimate fate up to the (hopefully) gentle disposition of politicians.

But how gentle will those politicians be toward those who simply ... refuse to serve? And, of course, people will refuse to serve.

Opposition to the draft was so intense during the Civil War that it resulted in riots that left hundreds dead. The Wilson administration found anti-draft sentiment so threatening during World War I that it imprisoned about 1,500 critics. During World War II, one in every six men in U.S. prisons was a draft resister. And during the Vietnam War, 209,517 men were charged with refusing service (though only about 9,000 were convicted).

Even allowing that compelled civilian service might be less objectionable to many than compelled military service, plenty of Americans can be expected to refuse to participate. Most of them will object not to the vague idea of serving the community that permeates these proposals, but to the naked compulsion and government direction that will inevitable lie behind actual programs. Coming from a variety of backgrounds, but all believing that they have a right to choose that trumps any of Babcock's fine-sounding arguments about "shared responsibility," they'll dodge the draft in public and private, peacefully or confrontationally, as their temperaments dictate.

So what do Babcock, Emanuel, Obama and company propose to do to penalize such disobedience? And do they think the consequences of such penalties are worth whatever they hope to gain?

In the newspapers and in public office as they are, it's time that advocates of mandatory service answer these questions -- or else drop the idea and leave us alone.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rahm Emanuel chats about his civilian draft scheme

The selection of Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois congressman and Democratic apparatchik, as President-Elect Barack Obama's chief of staff, has raised a few eyebrows -- at least partially because of Emanuel's advocacy of a civilian draft. That plan for "universal civilian service" would press Americans aged 18 to 25 into government service for a minimum of three months (though Emanuel is flexible about the actual parameters of service). Civil defense training features prominently in the agenda for those three months, although the assembled ranks would presumably be available for whatever purpose the government of the moment favored.

As for resisters ... Emanuel never does specify what the penalty should be for those who refuse to be shanghaied.

In 2006, after the publication of his book, The Plan, Rahm Emanuel sat down for an interview with Ben Smith of the New York Daily News. In particular, Smith pressed Emanuel on the details of his compulsory civilian service proposal. Part of that interview is available below.

A longer version of this interview is available at Eyeblast.tv.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Yours truly chatters about compulsory service on Tulsa's KFAQ

I talked on Tulsa's KFAQ with host Pat Campbell about President-Elect Barack Obama's scheme for federally mandated community service, Rahm Emanuel's civilian draft proposal, Obama's nebulous idea about a civilian national security force and how (and whether) they all tie together. The podcast is available here. My segment starts about three-quarters of the way through the hour.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Screw compulsory service

In the late 1960s, Milton Friedman, the famous economist, sat on a commission tasked with ending the military draft. One of the opponents of that goal was General William Westmoreland, then commander of all U.S. troops in Vietnam. In testimony before the commission, General Westmoreland objected to volunteer soldiers, saying he did not want to command an army of mercenaries.

To which Mr Friedman replied, "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?"

The libertarian economist wasn't the only prominent person to equate forced service to enslavement. A 1930 anti-conscription manifesto signed by notables including Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud described the draft as "a form of servitude."

Ayn Rand wrote of the draft that it "negates man's fundamental right -- the right to life -- and establishes the fundamental principle of statism: that a man's life belongs to the state..."

Mahatma Gandhi signed a statement saying, "Conscription involves the degradation of human personality, and the destruction of liberty."

Slavery, servitude, statism, destruction of liberty -- some pretty bright people have looked at conscription and judged it harshly.

I raise these points because my recent posts on President-Elect Barack Obama's plans for mandatory community service for high school students, and his new Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's support for compelling universal civilian service have reopened debates that I thought were pretty well settled. In fact, some people who've responded to me seem to think a scheme to force Americans to serve the state in one capacity or another is a swell idea.

First, of all, to get it out of the way -- among those "some people" are the members of the United States Supreme Court, circa 1918. In Arver v. U.S., responding to an appeal to the anti-slavery language of the Thirteenth Amendment, Chief Justice White wrote:

Finally, as we are unable to conceive upon what theory the exaction by government from the citizen of the performance of his supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation as the result of a war declared by the great representative body of the people can be said to be the imposition of involuntary servitude in violation of the prohibitions of the Thirteenth Amendment, we are constrained to the conclusion that the contention to that effect is refuted by its mere statement.

To my mind, those may be the least convincing words ever issued in a Supreme Court opinion, consisting as they do of equal parts snottiness and sanctimony. Refusing to address an argument is not, in and of itself, an argument.

So, with all due disrespect to the Supreme Court, I see no reason why compelled service should not be regarded as involuntary servitude -- labor rendered against one's will -- of the sort forbidden in the United States under the Thirteenth Amendment. More importantly, I see no reason why compelled service, as an imposition against an individual's right to exercise liberty and determine the course of his or her own life, should not be regarded as evil.

Note, I say "compelled service," not "military draft." Some people object to militarism, but drop all objections to mandated service if the compelled labor is put to use in a soup kitchen or a clinic.

To me, though, the primary evil is not militarism, it's compulsion. It's to treat an individual not as a free person who owns his or her own life, but as the property of the state to be drawn upon as a resource at the whim of bureaucrats and politicians.

The Rahm Emanuels of the world explicitly or implicitly endorse this view, suggesting that Americans should "give something back" -- as payment for what, they never specify. What do we owe the government, after all? And why? I suppose it's possible that some individuals may have an unpaid obligation to an agency or an official, but it's impossible to say that about people at large.

In fact, it's government that owes us -- it owes us respect for our individual rights, and careful efforts to not infringe on our liberty.

Anybody who works an honest job, creates art, writes poetry, owns a business or does a myriad of other productive activities "gives" more to the world at large in terms of producing wealth, culture and community than they ever could by grudgingly picking up trash by the side of the highway or giving flu shots in a clinic under threat of fines or imprisonment.

And when people are pressed into service against their will, even in the name of very best cause you can imagine, nothing is given; instead, time is taken, labor is stolen and liberty is destroyed.

Fans of mandatory service are quick to tell us that a little taste of compulsion will get those lazy kids off the sofa and make them better people. But it's crystal clear that the folks most in need of being made into better people are the ones who think they have the right to drag their neighbors off at gunpoint to do work they don't want to do -- for any reason.


Friday, November 7, 2008

A little more on our new president's plans for your kids

When I wrote in September about Barack Obama's plan to mandate fifty hours of community service for high school students, I had to pull together two different documents to make the case. One was the national service plan (PDF) on his campaign Website, which said that "Schools that require service as part of the educational experience create improved learning environments and serve as resources for their communities." The other was a speech he gave in December 2007, promising that "[a]t the middle and high school level, we'll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs, and give schools resources to offer new service opportunities."

I thought the overall policy direction contained there was painfully clear, and so did editors at the Providence Journal and the East Valley Tribune, who ran versions of that column. But I got some flack from people who found wiggle room in the need to draw a line between those two statements.

Well, no more. On the president-elect's official transition Website, Change.gov, the "America Serves" page now contains the following language [Note: The page was changed, removing the explicit "require" language, after the publication of this article. The original is still in the Google cache here]:

The Obama Administration will call on Americans to serve in order to meet the nation’s challenges. President-Elect Obama will expand national service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and will create a new Classroom Corps to help teachers in underserved schools, as well as a new Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, and Veterans Corps. Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year. Obama will encourage retiring Americans to serve by improving programs available for individuals over age 55, while at the same time promoting youth programs such as Youth Build and Head Start.

No extrapolation needed, thank you. The policy intent is now written out plain to see.

Yes, I'm aware that fifty hours of mandatory community service hardly rises to the level of a military draft. It's not even the mandatory universal citizen service his new chief of staff wants to inflict on everybody between the ages of 18 and 25. But it is a top-down mandate by the federal government that students perform state-approved labor.

I personally object to such requirements even when they come from the local school district. I want my kid to learn to volunteer and to contribute to the community, but that means volunteer, and for causes he picks, to the extent that he believes is appropriate, with a little nudging from within the family, not from bureaucrats. Government mandates destroy the whole idea of volunteerism, and the inevitable insistence that service be performed for an approved organization or cause (which is the case with most existing service requirements) is, frankly, a bit totalitarian.

Our children, as well as ourselves, are independent individuals. We are not resources to be drawn upon by politicians. Nor do we owe our labor to the government.

We've had enough of authoritarianism under the Bush administration. We don't need to begin the Obama administration with a dose of involuntary servitude.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes we can -- draft your ass

You know, I warn, and I warn, and I warn, and I warn, but nobody listens. Don't know what I'm talking about? Read on ...

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, President-Elect Obama's choice for chief of staff in his incoming administration, is co-author of a book, The Plan, that calls for, among other things, compulsory service for all Americans ages 18 to 25. The following excerpt is from pages 61-62 of the 2006 book:

It's time for a real Patriot Act that brings out the patriot in all of us. We propose universal civilian service for every young American. Under this plan, All Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five will be asked to serve their country by going through three months of basic training, civil defense preparation and community service. ...

Here's how it would work. Young people will know that between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, the nation will enlist them for three months of civilian service. They'll be asked to report for three months of basic civil defense training in their state or community, where they will learn what to do in the event of biochemical, nuclear or conventional attack; how to assist others in an evacuation; how to respond when a levee breaks or we're hit by a natural disaster. These young people will be available to address their communities' most pressing needs.

Emanuel and co-author Bruce Reed insist "this is not a draft," but go on to write of young men and women, "the nation will enlist them for three months of civilian service." They also warn, "[s]ome Republicans will squeal about individual freedom," ruling out any likelihood that they would let people opt out of universal citizen service.

As chief of staff, Emanuel will not be in a position to directly introduce public policy, but his enthusiasm for compulsory service, combined with Barack Obama's own plan to require high school students to perform 50 hours of government-approved service, suggest an unfortunate direction for the new administration.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Column on Obama's mandatory service plan published in the East Valley Tribune

A trimmed version of my piece on the involuntary nature of Barack Obama's national service scheme is in today's East Valley Tribune (of Mesa, Arizona).

Obama's involuntary volunteerism

On September 2, I had an OpEd in the Las Vegas Review-Journal about the disparate treatment of small-time marijuana dealer Greg Gibson and Cindy McCain, who made her fortune in beer. I'm feeling pretty politically balanced at the moment in terms of calling out the major presidential candidates on issues where freedom is at stake.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Shhh ... Don't call Obama's national service scheme a 'draft'

Both Barack Obama and John McCain have long supported some sort of "national service" that involves large-scale participation by Americans in projects deemed worthy by a government agency. It may mean building housing, assisting with the provision of medical care or patrolling the border, but overall it involves putting aside personal preferences for, as McCain puts it, "a cause greater than yourself."

Obama devotes an entire section of his campaign Website to national service; McCain does the same and penned a column back in 2001 praising AmeriCorps and calling for expanded opportunities for government-sanctioned service. Both candidates recently appeared at a national service forum sponsored by Time magazine, which has made the issue its house hobbyhorse. McCain and Obama each have praised local volunteerism, but seem to think that donating your time to a soup kitchen, a clinic or a church is less valuable than participation in a grand-scale scheme managed by the state.

I have a lot of thoughts about politicians who deem hours spent in grassroots service to causes chosen freely by volunteers to be inferior to government programs run from D.C., but I'll hold my tongue -- for now. What does interest me, though, is whether all of this talk of "national service" means that the grand old days of conscription are about to return, though now with draftees stuffed into hospital scrubs and denim as often as they're required to don camouflage.

McCain was once an advocate of the draft, though, as far as I can tell, he's uttered nary a word in favor of conscription since he started pursuing residency in the White House. The national service section of his Website is full of talk of opportunities and incentives -- lots of carrot, but no stick. Whatever his personal feelings, he seems to understand that draft boards are no longer compatible with presidential ambitions.

At first glance, Obama's scheme is similar. His proposal even specifically refers to "universal voluntary citizen service." It's all very touchy-feelly. But, as Michael Kinsley put it so well in the pages of Time: "Problem number one with grand schemes for universal voluntary public service is that they can't be both universal and voluntary. If everybody has to do it, then it's not voluntary, is it? And if it's truly up to the individual, then it won't be universal."

Of course, Barack Obama could be playing the usual politician's game of throwing empty words at an audience, without worrying overly much about their meaning. But his campaign has put forward a detailed plan for national service, and on close inspection, it's clear that he really does mean "universal." And while there's no call for old-fashioned conscription, his national service carrots are matched by very modern sticks that introduce almost as much compulsion as the old kind.

In fact, Obama's national service plan is "voluntary" in a technical sense -- nobody will be arrested for declining to participate. But non-participants also won't be allowed to graduate from high school, and without those diplomas, life could get a bit rough.

Obama's national service plan (PDF) says:

Schools that require service as part of the educational experience create improved learning environments and serve as resources for their communities. The Obama-Biden plan sets a goal for all students to engage in service, with middle and high school students performing 50 hours of service each year, and college students performing 100 hours of service each year. Under this plan, students would graduate college with as many as 17 weeks of public service experience under their belts.

But schools set their own policies, don't they? Well ... sort of. You see, as the saying goes, "he who takes the king's coin becomes the king's man." And most public schools depend on federal dollars. As Obama elaborated in a speech last December, "At the middle and high school level, we'll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs, and give schools resources to offer new service opportunities."

So, it won't be the nasty federal government forcing your kids to donate their time to government-approved service, it'll be the local schools -- but that requirement will be the among the strings attached to federal money.

This is a very modern way of imposing mandates from the top down. The uniform 21-year-old national drinking age, for instance, is nominally the choice of each state government, not a federal law. But the states set the age at 21 as a condition of continuing to receive a full measure of federal highway funds. The same goes for the late, unlamented 55mph speed limit.

Of course, state and local agencies could choose to give up the checks from D.C., but they almost never do. And so, violations of federal policies get punished by state and local authorities.

Under Barack Obama's plan, a refusal to participate in a national service program touted at the federal level will be punished by the withholding of high school diplomas by the school district in your town. And without that diploma, few colleges or employers will even bother to look at your application.

It's a softer sort of authoritarianism which requires no draft boards, muddles the identity of the "bad guy" and produces no martyrs i handcuffs for the evening news. You just can't get a job if you don't do as you're told.

Such "soft" mandates are easier to escape than the old draft. Private schools will still be able to set their own criteria for graduation, as will homeschoolers. At least, they will so long as they can resist social pressure to conform to the requirements imposed by public schools.

And 50 hours of service isn't exactly a tour in the rice paddies. Most people will just roll their eyes and do what it takes to get that diploma. (The 100 hours required of college students will be in return for a $4,000 grant, which amounts less to conscription than to the world's most expensive work-study scheme.)

But make no mistake: Barack Obama wants your kids. And he's willing to draft them, in a plausibly deniable way.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

National service: Back to feudalism

Jim Lindgren reports on Service Nation, the creepy cabal pushing for the imposition of universal national service for both military and civilian purposes -- ostensibly voluntary, but eventually compulsory. The organization is backed by political and media heavy-hitters including Caroline Kennedy, Alma Powell (wife of Colin Powell) and Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel. Stengel has already used his magazine as a vehicle for promoting the cause of national service.

In Part III of his report, Lindgren mentions the blast-from-the-past nature of compelled labor for the state -- how it's a return to the feudal relationship between the serf and the local warlord.

One thing so-far left unmentioned by the we're-all-in-this-together brigade is the fate of the inevitable resisters. While claiming that "Americans are ready to be asked to do something," Stengel at least had the good grace to admit that "yes, there are libertarians who believe that government asks too much of us — and that the principal right in a democracy is the right to be left alone." But neither he nor his co-conspirators have taken the next logical step of discussing what they plan to do to those dissenters who decline to submit to the state's demand for service. Will refusal be a misdemeanor? A felony? Will it carry prison time or just a fine? (Yes, the Time piece specifically says service should be voluntary, but the organization Stengel backs goes farther).

The National Service Act now gathering dust in the halls of Congress passes the buck, saying only that "The President shall prescribe such regulations as are necessary to carry out this title," with those regulations including "[s]tandards for satisfactory performance of civilian service and of penalties for failure to perform civilian service satisfactorily."

My curiosity has a practical purpose. If I'm covered by the proposed national service requirement, I plan to refuse to comply. If I'm not covered, I plan to counsel those who are covered to refuse, and to help them do so.

So come on, folks. Give us something to work with.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Serve yourself, not the government

In 1961, at his inaugural address, then-President John F. Kennedy uttered perhaps the most overrated words in the modern American political quotation book.
Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
Based on the sentiment expressed in those words, I'd say that Kennedy can go to Hell, except that, as an expired politician, he's certainly already there.

Self-sacrifice for the sake of der vaterland -- err ... these here United States -- remains a popular nostrum peddled by office-seekers on both the authoritarian right and authoritarian left of the political spectrum. Both John McCain and Barack Obama are big believers in the idea that Americans should "give something back" to their country in the form of national service that, in their speeches, flirts with a strong dose of compulsion.

"Give something back?" In return for what? Having my rights respected better (or less badly) by the government than they would be in many other countries? Sorry, but I don't owe the state payment for refraining from doing things it never had the right to do. And note -- it shines in this area only by comparison to pretty weak competition.

Here's an attaboy to the U.S. government: You don't suck as bad as the folks running Cuba. Now leave me alone.

Last week, Barack Obama gave a speech expanding his concept of what you can do for your country.
"This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program -- this will be a central cause of my presidency," he said. "We will ask Americans to serve. We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges." ...

"Loving your country shouldn't just mean watching fireworks on the 4th of July," he said. "Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it. If you do, your life will be richer, and our country will be stronger."
Specifically, he wants to require 50 hours of annual "service" from high school students and 100 hours of annual "service" from college students, with the schools arm-twisted into imposing the mandates. Those hours will be put toward government-approved goals, of course. I don't suppose agitating for an end to the national service program would qualify.

Look, I think volunteering -- that's service of the duration and for the cause that you choose -- is a good thing. That's not because it's owed to a nebulous idea like "country" or a malevolent institution like "the state," but because it helps make the community in which you live a better place and it reaffirms your own connections to that community.

But compelled service builds nothing of value except low-cost labor battalions for fulfilling politicians' wish-lists.

In the end, the most valuable service comes in the form of working against the state, not for it.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Coming soon: national service (or else)

It's interesting that Germany, of all places, is discussing reducing (though not eliminating) the demands of conscription even as the United States is edging slowly but surely toward some sort of national service.

True, the national service both Barack Obama and John McCain promise doesn't really resemble old-style military conscription -- although there have been calls to reinstate exactly that. Instead, the two presidential contenders envision sort of an expanded AmeriCorps -- bureaucratized volunteerism for every job the government wants done on the cheap -- with young people encouraged to participate through a combination of bribes, such as tax credits, and social pressure to conform.

But some high schools are already requiring community service as a condition of graduation, and Obama's website says he wants to "require 100 hours of service in college." That may not be a lot, but it is compulsory, and suggests an attitude that regards citizens as servants of the state. It's easy to see how the "voluntary" national service of next year could become the expected-as-a-condition-of-a-diploma labor for the state of five years from now.

I'm working on the assumption that my son will be strongly encouraged, or even required, to surrender some portion of his life to the dictates of government officials. If he's so inclined, I'll do what I can to help him defy such demands.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Slavery wins a round

Sad to say, but Bermuda's Chief Justice Richard Ground ruled earlier this month that slavery does, in fact, have a role to play in that island paradise. On March 7, Justice Ground rejected a challenge by 14 draftees to the conscription law used to fill the ranks of the Bermuda Regiment with unwilling troops. In his decision, Ground went so far as to note that the Bermuda Regiment had apparently made only one brief attempt to recruit volunteers in the previous six years, allowing that the military could rely on forcing young men into the ranks under threat of prison time as its principal recruitment tool.

Left unaddressed anywhere in the ruling were fundamental questions about the morality of compelling human beings into involuntary servitude.

Bermudians Against the Draft hasn't given up its fight. Spokesman Larry Marshall Sr. promises to appeal the case to the Privy Council in London. His organization has already begun lobbying visiting British dignitaries, pointing out that Bermuda is the only one of the U.K.'s foreign territories to continue to force unwilling people into uniform.

Bermuda's experience serves as an important caution to Americans half a decade into an unpopular war, with proposals for a military draft resurfacing as recruitment efforts fall short, and with presidential candidates continuously floating trial balloons about national service that might -- or might not -- end up being mandatory, depending upon which way the political winds blow.

Government officials are fond of scolding people for not "doing their part" or failing to live up to supposed "responsibilities" they have toward the state. How people somehow incurred these unwanted obligations is rarely if ever addressed -- for good reason. Government owe the people they supposedly serve respect for their rights, but people owe nothing in return but wariness for an institution that wields great power that it has a history of abusing. People from Bermuda to the U.S. and beyond need to be reminded that they owe nothing to their governments beyond continuous scrutiny and skepticism.

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Who wants to burn a draft card?

Rep. John "Porkmeister" Murtha has made something of a name for himself over the past couple of years for something more than merely soaking the taxpayers; he's established himself as a critic of the Iraq War with the military cred to back up his opinions. Now he's found a way to combine his two callings into one neato package by agitating for a revival of the military draft.

Calling for a return to conscription, Murtha told CNN host Wolf Blitzer, "I think it's absolutely needed."

He elaborated to the Associated Press, "A draft is the fairest way -- if we're going to fight a war -- to fight it, because everybody has responsibility. Everybody should share in this responsibility. Everybody should have the chance to serve."

Actually, Murtha's support for a military draft isn't knew -- he was one of only two legislators to vote for Charlie Rangel's conscription bill. But Murtha is now chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which puts him in a position to influence policy -- not just tweak the majority as he did as a member of the opposition. That suggests that he's serious about resorting to slavery to fill boots and uniforms.

The argument most often voiced by people like Murtha and Rangel in defense of conscription is that it's somehow "fairer" to "share the burden" of military service across society -- not just among those who choose to sign enlistment papers. The subtext to the argument is that widespread conscription will somehow make it harder to engage in foreign adventures; people will flood the streets to protest against unpopular wars, preventing political leaders from sending troops hither and yon.

But "fairness" seems an odd description to apply to involuntary servitude. How is it fair to force people to risk their lives for causes they don't choose -- or else to suffer imprisonment and criminal records? Simply put, conscription is slavery. There's nothing "fair" about it.

And the odd concept that handing politicians a ready supply of cannon fodder will somehow inhibit their hawkish fantasies flies in the face of historical experience. In the realm of less-than-popular conflicts, both the Korean and Vietnamese wars were fought with conscript armies. People may get nostalgic over the anti-war protests that accompanied the latter struggle, but our troops were still there for a decade.

Doesn't it make more sense to assume that unpopular wars will reduce the ranks of voluntary enlistees, more effectively curtailing such conflicts than the ticked-off friends and neighbors of draftees ever could?

Unfortunately, with John Murtha now wielding real power, we have a better chance than ever of testing the worth of competing theories of military recruitment.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

21st-century slavery

Slavery -- forced labor -- still exists in parts of the world, and not just in backward hell-holes like the Sudan. Cloaked in patriotism and pretty uniforms, slavery still exists in some "civilized" countries that otherwise possess all the trappings of relative freedom, including open elections and a free press. In these countries, slavery continues to exist in the form of conscription.

Bermuda is one of the "civilized" places that still forces people to work for the state or face prison terms. Young men in Bermuda have long faced the prospect of a potential draft into service in the Bermuda Regiment. Unsurprisingly, such forced labor is not universally popular among those subject to its call. Now a minor revolt threatens to overturn military conscription in the island paradise -- and it's upsetting local leaders along the way.

Fourteen young men subject to the draft have filed a lawsuit against the authorities, challenging conscription on the grounds that it breaches the human right to be free, and that it's gender-biased. The men are backed by Bermudians Against the Draft, which is providing the lawyers and funding needed to fight the case before the island paradise's Supreme Court.

BAD's leader, the Rev. Larry Marshall Sr., has labeled conscription "21st-Century slavery," and it's hard to take issue with his choice of words. Hard, that is, unless you're Governor Sir John Vereker, or Premier Ewart Brown, both of whom have objected to the whole idea of letting people choose how to live their own lives. Premier Brown, in particular, emphasizes his affection for enforced national service.

Americans shouldn't be too smug about this situation. we have our fair share of political grand-standers who'd love to see conscription revived on the mainland, despite widespread rejection of the idea by the public. Defeating the draft in a neighbor like Bermuda might be a shot across the bow to would be slave-drivers in the U.S.

To help Bermudians Against the Draft with its efforts, go here to contribute.

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