PRINCETON, N.J. — Is it hypocritical of me to support the Persian Gulf War in which some of my peers are dying but not be willing to put my life on the line? I don't think so.
Our society depends on the willingness of some to take risks that the rest of us would not. Few would be willing to make a living running inside burning buildings. Everyone enjoys the security maintained by the armed forces, but many are unwilling to enlist and risk dying for that security.
America's military is, at present, essentially a mercenary force. No one must serve; people do so, in large part, for economic, educational and social gain. To be sure, patriotism also plays a large role; no one thinks our soldiers would put down their arms if Saddam Hussein offered higher wages. But we must remember that our soldiers have freely contracted to expose themselves to great risks, no matter what principle is invoked, in exchange for pay and training. This is a contract many of the rest of us would reject.
Historically, Americans have strongly opposed the draft. Blind adherence to the call of duty has largely been a myth--the reality has been dominated by isolationism, draft dodging, demonstrations and burned draft cards. Even during the Civil War, when our own soil was soaked in blood, organized draft resistance was rampant on both sides.
The threat to the nation must be greater and the principles involved must be more compelling when we use a conscripted army than when we use volunteers. Few protested the draft in World War II because our country was in immediate danger. In Vietnam, we were not in immediate danger; opposition to that war galvanized once the draft was accelerated. Americans, regardless of the President's wishes, pick and choose which wars are worth a draft and which wars are worth the lives of volunteers.
Yes, most Americans support the war against Iraq. But this war is based on rather abstract principles (international law and support for our allies), economic interests (oil) and long-term security (stopping Hussein's nuclear program before he develops an atomic bomb). These are all compelling reasons for action, but George Bush would only be justified in forcing people to fight if the threat were nearer and far more immediate.
Would Bush be able to persuade Americans that a war for such goals is worth their lives or the lives of their children? Probably not. But these same citizens are happy that other people are willing to do the fighting. These citizens are not hypocrites. They are just not risk-takers.
Any situation that would lead to conscription--such as bloody losses during a ground campaign to regain Kuwait--would crush support for the war long before Bush could even ponder a draft.
No one is arguing that our volunteer troops are expendable. But we should be willing to risk their lives even when our immediate security is not on the line. After all, they agreed to be used that way. Our troops understood when they enlisted that if they died in the line of duty, the odds are it will not be in defense of our shores but to advance principles, narrow policies or economic interests.
Does anyone join up these days thinking that the next war will be against Hitler? Noriega or Hussein is more realistic. Under these circumstances, many hawkish students like myself will be content to support our courageous volunteer GIs from the sidelines.