THE NEW MOBE of 1980 is about to begin, and one can well imagine how the Kremlin commissars will tremble later this month when they see American youth line up at the Post Office to register for the draft. Maybe this patriotic outpouring will make those Godless Commies rethink Naked Aggression. Maybe The Reds will Get The Message this time -- America Means Business.
More likely, the Godless Commies won't even notice. I don't think any serious people expect the resumption of registration to have much impact on anyone, except perhaps the male youth who are compelled by law to sign up and the female youth who are by law excluded from the exercise. Registering for the draft, it is said, will remind these young men of their Obligations to the country.
I hope so.I hope the boys, while waiting in line at the Post Office, have long and soulful discussions about peace and war and their patriotic responsibilities before they flit off into the summer sun.
I hope the girls argue about their citizenship, too. Unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise, the male-only draft registration is the clearest statement possible that the U.S. government does not regard women as equals. All of the claims and aspirations of contemporary feminism are undermined by this declaration of boys-only for the national defense. In the long run, young women will suffer more than the boys from this silly business.
But, in terms of global struggle, the draft registration has almost no meaning except as a quintessential expression of that peculiar and dangerous mode of reasoning associated with the Cold War. The Cold War is fought by abstract formulations which seduce our finest minds into confusing theoretical expressions with the real uses of power. This would be expensive but harmless if only the theoretical war games did not lead so regularly to real war, real bloodshed.
Thus, the draft registration is sold to us, not as a necessity of military manpower, but as a Symbolic Gesture. We are sending a message to Moscow: America Is Determined. Of course, even a dense Russian general can read between the lines and see that the Symbolic Gesture is empty. Thus and therefore, it must be followed by another stronger Symbolic Gesture -- resumption of the draft itself.
The draft comes later, children, after the election. When another Crisis requires another Gesture. But do not become cynical about politicians. This graduated deceit is the very nature of Cold War escalation, which moves deliberately from one gesture to another without fully defining the future strategy. We concoct calibrated expressions of National Resolve until, one day, quite by accident and without anybody wishing for it to happen, events call our bluff. Shall we draw back from the shooting or stand tall? America stands tall. If we draw back, then we shall prove that all or our prior gestures were fake. Therefore struggle we must.
Part of me, that corner of my thoughts ruled by the imp of the perverse, hopes the children will hesitate, if not resist, at the Post Office door.
I would like to see some of the young men grilling postal clerks on the full implications of this paper they are signing. I would like to see the young women picketing, demanding their equality.
The Post Office clerks will shake their heads and mumble something about only following regulations. Since the boys, after all, are only signing a piece of paper, I do not expect any meaningful resistance. Good Americans follow the regulations, don't ask questions.
Perhaps there is the silver lining in this postcard mobilization, for it confronts young people with an obligation to learn a little history. Many in the generation coming out of high school cannot tell you the difference between Vietnam and Iwo Jima. Perhaps they will study up and ask some good questions. If they don't want to "go for Texaco" -- and I wouldn't blame them -- what would they fight for? Or, if they are gung-ho for the draft, who should be called? Only boys? Only boys without graduate degrees?
Some "kids" are already asking impertinent questions: Should we go to war over oil when we are not yet willing to make all the peaceable sacrifices that would conserve resources? That query rankles those of us who grew up dreaming of big cars and overabundance, but it rankles mainly because it is on target.
When the draft comes later, it will not be equitable. That is a matter of cold statistical fact which nobody wants to discuss yet. Unless America intends to double or triple the size of its armed forces, only a handful will be conscripted. The draft will choose one young person out of every 25 or 30 to be the neighborhood patriot. Local draft boards will rule on individual fitness, the same mechanism which produced so much favoritism and random unfairness under the old draft. If women are excluded, this unequal privilege will be held against them in every other sphere of their lives.
The final inequity, strangely enough, will be suffered by the regular personnel of the military -- the men and women who volunteered for careers in the nation's service. The draft is fundamentally a cost-cutting device, a way to fill the ranks without paying the full cost of salaries and benefits for these soldiers and sailors and airmen. Liberal critics of the all-volunteer force express the most patronizing view toward these enlistees. First, they dismiss them as incompetent unemployalbes. Then they cluck over the injustice of a nation depending on its poor (read: poor blacks) to fill its military ranks. Hence, justice demands the draft.
The net effect of conscription, however, hurts those "unemployables" for whom liberals declare such solicitude. It will bar many of them from the military, which is their best shot at upward mobility. It will depress wages and benefits for all who do serve. This is equality with a vengeance.
A more honest response, I believe, is the conservative initative to raise military pay if it is focused sharply on the real manpower problem, the loss of technical specialists who are trained by the military at great expense but who cannot afford to stay in uniform.
If America needs a computer specialist to operate a sophisticated weapons system or a boiler engineer to run a ship, why should the nation not pay that person the full value of his or her expertise? The draft will produce short-term soldiers to fill out the infantry problem, the loss of skilled people who are drawn to more attractive careers in private realms. We need these people to make all our fancy weapons work right, especially if there is a real war.
The draft won't help. Don't take my word. The Pentagon keeps saying the same thing, if anyone will listen. Robert B. Irie, assistant secretary of defense for manpower, told Congress in April:
"We don't think peacetime conscription is the right way to solve our manpower problems. The number one problem is retention in peacetime. Conscription would not afect that in particular."
The draft is for real war, but the New Mobe is symbolic warfare, the kind which makes patriots feel good, which keeps the defense plants on full shifts and sends brave messages to our allies and our adversaries about our Seriousness. I hope they are listening. I doubt that they will believe us.