Coffins, draped with the American flag, make the long flight from Baghdad to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Amputees fill the wards at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Meanwhile, jingoistic voices dominate the airwaves. Anyone with the temerity to question the Iraq war is accused of giving comfort to the enemy and undermining troop morale. In the midst of the carnage and bombast, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announces that tours of duty in Iraq, yet again, will be extended. The soldiers and their families salute and obey.
Where's the outrage? Why do only a few wives and parents raise a whisper of protest when the nation breaks its promises to the troops? Why are Americans reconciled to losses? Why is Congress compliant? Where are the protesters who filled the streets of America during the war in Vietnam? What has changed? Why aren't Baby Boomers and their children bringing the government to a halt?
The draft. That's what's different. In the days of conscription, most Americans were directly affected by our wars. A tour in the military included, like as not, a year in a war zone. College students could avoid the draft for awhile, but inevitably, Selective Service tracked them down. Some fled to Sweden or Canada. Others found refuge in the Texas National Guard or the University of Arkansas ROTC. The less fortunate, when called, were trapped in a deadly quagmire. Men of draft age, and their families and friends, raised holy hell. They brought that generation's "war of choice" to an end. The will of the people prevailed. Had citizens been silent, the Memorial Wall might now encircle the nation's Capitol.
Today, however, our soldiers are volunteers. They are as obedient as children. They voice no gripe with their commander in chief who sends them on his crusades in Afghanistan and Iraq. If they do complain, they are sternly reminded that they had a choice. They were not drafted. They should have realized when they enlisted that they might be killed to enforce the Pax Americana across the globe. They are professional soldiers, aren't they? Hardly -- note how many of our dead are teenagers, scarcely out of high school. Many of them joined up for practical reasons: to find employment, to earn money for college tuition and, even, to win a chance at American citizenship. But at what price? Are the benefits worth a leg or an arm or a life?
In privileged circles, service in the military is a job for the "other" Americans. The architects of this war, led by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, have none of their children in uniform. The possibility doesn't even cross their minds. Their daughters will never wear combat boots. The "war party" elite of America can afford to hang tough. They shift the military about like little pawns in a game of chess. Their sons and daughters will not be buried in Arlington National Cemetery or lie limbless in Walter Reed.
The disparity between the elite and the people is simply un-American. The drafters of the U.S. Constitution recognized the inherent danger in states with professional armies obedient to no one but the princes who paid the salaries. The Founding Fathers understood that military service -- the right and responsibility of every citizen of a free nation to bear arms in defense of the country -- is the surest safeguard of democracy. If power is truly to reside with the people, then a citizen Army, a conscript military, is essential. If rulers are not personally involved, if the lives of their own family and friends are not at risk, they are apt to be careless in spilling blood.
If "taking out" an enemy pre-emptively has become, for the United States, a first and not a last resort, perhaps the best corrective is a draft. A citizen Army would make America less belligerent. Equitable and universal national conscription would provide the United States with a dependable military in time of genuine national emergency. The benefits to our young people would outweigh the sacrifices if active duty becomes, without exception, a rite of passage, entered into immediately after high school by every American, rich and poor, brilliant and average, straight and gay, male and female. After tough basic training and a year of active duty, America's youth would approach the university, technical college or workplace with new skills and with mature social and political consciousness.
National conscription would bind the nation. Young men and women from Sausalito to Salinas, the favored of Carmel to the disadvantaged of East Palo Alto, would have a shared experience and a common understanding of the duties and privileges of citizenship.
But perhaps, more important, these young people would serve as hostages for peace. The president would be less apt to deploy a national force if the "boots on the ground" were worn by Jenna and Barbara Bush.
Alex A. Vardamis is a retired professor of American literature from West Point and the University of Vermont who lives in Carmel, California.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle