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"Rich Man's War and a Poor Man's Fight"

Sunday, 13 February 2011 10:02 By Camillo Mac Bica, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

"Rich Man
New U.S. Army recruits wait in line for their initial haircut during basic combat training at Fort Jackson, S.C., Jan. 16, 2008. (Photo: Senior Airman Micky M. Bazaldua / US Air Force)

According to David Nasaw, a history professor at the City University of New York, after having received his draft notice to report for military service during the Civil War Andrew Carnegie, the billionaire rail and steel magnate, paid an Irish immigrant $850 to fight in his place.(1) Needless to say, Carnegie was by no means unique in his unwillingness to serve, as "draft dodging" was a common practice among the wealthy.

"A large number of the men of his generation, who would later be referred to as 'robber barons,' including Phillip Armour, Jay Cooke, J.P. Morgan, George Pullman, Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, Collis P. Huntington, and John D. Rockefeller spent the war as he did, making money by providing the Union Armies with fuel, uniforms, shoes, rifles, ammunitions, provisions, transportation and financing."(2)

Nor was it illegal: The Conscription (Enrollment) Act, passed by Congress in 1863 to address a manpower shortage in the Union Army, allowed an exemption from military service to those who either paid a "commutation fee" of $300 or, like Carnegie, hired a substitute. Since only the privileged, wealthier citizens could afford such a remittance, military service, fighting and dying, became the exclusive burden of the poor and the working classes. As a consequence, those who were "condemned to serve," and perhaps to die, viewed their conscription as forced servitude in a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight," the rallying cry that mobilized thousands to take to the streets in protest. During one such uprising, the 1863 New York Draft Riots, some 2,000 protesters were killed and 8,000 injured, according to one estimate.

I believe the protester's resentment and dissatisfaction with the Civil War draft and its exemption policy was not only understandable, but justifiable. According to contractarians like John Locke(3) , whose thinking profoundly influenced the Republicanism of our founding fathers, military service, especially in times of national emergency, becomes an obligation and civic responsibility of ALL able-bodied citizens in the state. Ideally, these citizen soldiers act from obligation, civic virtue, patriotism and love of country. Any exemption from military service, other than for physical or psychological disability, ignores the universality requirement of this civic (and moral?) obligation and violates the American ideals of fairness and shared sacrifice.

During the final years of the Vietnam War, Congress, at the behest of President Richard M. Nixon, refused to extend the draft law. Military conscription expired automatically on July 1, 1973, ushering in a new era of the all-volunteer force (AVF). Sadly, however, war continues to be a national pastime. Throughout its existence and especially as the cost in blood, sanity and lives mount in the "war on terrorism" - now America's longest war - it becomes apparent, not unsurprisingly perhaps, that civic obligation, patriotism and love of country prove insufficient motivation to bring adequate numbers of enlistees to the recruitment station. If the AVF was to succeed, more aggressive - though in the view of some, morally questionable - recruitment practices would be necessary. Highly funded and technologically sophisticated TV commercials for military services that accentuate the mythological (adventure, glory, heroism, nobility) and the practical (a steady paycheck, money for college etc.), while ignoring its less attractive aspects (injury, death, loss of rights etc.), appear with regularity during broadcasts of sporting events, rock concerts etc. Military recruiters are frequent visitors to high schools, college campuses, NASCAR races, air shows, street fairs etc., trading military T-shirts, dog tags, key chains, violent video games etc. for contact information, impressing children and young adults with displays of military machinery, weaponry and interactive war games.

Probably the greatest asset, however, to enabling the AVF to meet its manpower requirements, as it strains to wage three wars and occupations, is the state of the economy. With the official unemployment rate at about 9.5 percent, with jobs being outsourced at a rate of about 12,000-15,000 per month, with over 1.2 million more Americans expected to lose their homes to foreclosure in 2011 and with deep cuts in scholarships and Pell Grants, recruiters can now entice prospective enlistees with generous enlistment bonuses, steady salaries and a comprehensive GI Bill to pay their college tuition, fees and living expenses should they choose to continue their education upon completion of their enlistment contract.

While motivations may be complex, I think it fair to say that, given these dreadful economic realities, military service in the AVF has become a "job to be filled by cash inducements," and the citizen soldier, driven by civic obligation, patriotism and love of country, has been replaced by homo economicus - a professional military of individuals motivated primarily by need and the realization that, in order to provide for themselves and their families or go to college, few if any alternatives are available to them other than military service. This is not to say, of course, that there are members of the military who are not motivated by such things, especially among the officer corps, or that homo economicus is not patriotic or does not love his country. It is just that, were it not for the economic incentives, they, like their more privileged counterparts, would have been less likely to enlist. Further, to point out how the government exploits economic inequities to increase enlistment is not to belittle the personal sacrifices of those who serve out of love of country. Rather, it is to call attention to the prevalence of unequal sacrifice, an injustice that must be remedied. In light of such coercive economic conditions, perhaps the term "all volunteer force" is a misnomer, as enlistees can hardly be said to have chosen military service voluntarily.

Despite the deep recession, not all segments of American society are suffering economically. Banking and corporate executives, for example, continue to enjoy lucrative salaries and bonuses. Under the war economy, Main Street struggles, Wall Street thrives and America suffers the largest income gap between its richest and poorest citizens in recorded history. Consequently, although the draft with its exemption clause may be gone, little has changed since the Civil War. The children of the privileged and the wealthy, uncoerced by economic need, feel no compunction to place their physical and mental well-being in jeopardy by enlisting in the military. As a result of this extreme economic inequity and the AVF's economic incentives, the modern equivalent of the substitution fee, once again the burden of fighting and dying falls upon the poor and working classes. Consequently, the AVF, not unlike the draft-military of 1873, smacks of classism and remains unrepresentative of American society. In fact, it may be even more insidious. During the Civil War, draft dodgers like Carnegie were at least required to pay the commutation or substitution fee out of their own pockets. In the AVF, it is paid for by the taxpayers. Ironically, given the system of taxation in this country that provides lucrative corporate tax loopholes and tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, these economic incentives to military service (i.e., the pay raises, enlistment bonuses, GI Bill etc.) are paid for, not by those who are spared (i.e., the privileged and the wealthy), but rather by those who are required, by economic need, to make the sacrifice, enlist in the military and risk injury and death in war - the poor and the working class.

One may argue, however, that my thesis that the AVF is unrepresentative of American society is disproved by the oft-cited Heritage Foundation Study, "Who Serves in the U.S. Military? The Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers," by Shanea Watkins Ph.D. and James Sherk, published on August 21, 2008. According to this Study's findings:

"Members of the all-volunteer military are significantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods than from low-income neighborhoods ... One quarter of enlisted recruits come from the wealthiest fifth of U.S. neighborhoods."

I think, however, that even a cursory review of the study reveals that its methodology is flawed and its conclusions unsubstantiated. For example, isn't the importance and purpose of this study to determine the economic status not of the neighborhoods from which recruits come, but rather of those individuals who actually serve in the military? If so, then why distract the reader with tangential information that may or may not be relevant to making this determination. To their credit, the researchers acknowledge and explain this crucial flaw in their data:

"Individual or family income data on enlistees do not exist. The Defense Department does not maintain records on the household income of recruits or officers."

But, yet, despite this alleged unavailability of data, the researchers draw their conclusions about the economic status of enlistees, based not on sound factual evidence, but, rather, on approximation, speculation and assumption.

"For example, 10 recruits in 2006 came from census tract 013306 in San Diego. Accordingly, we assigned to each of these 10 recruits a median household income of $57,380 per year (in 2008 dollars), the median income of that tract in the 2000 Census."

After having approximated the household income of each recruit based upon the median household income of the census tract in which they lived, the researchers, as part of their "improved methodology," recorded their findings into quintiles. The first quintile included those making $0-$33,267, the second $33,268-$42,039, the third $42,040-$51,127, the fourth $51,128-$65,031 and the fifth, $65,032-$246,333. Here, again, there is cause for concern as the fifth quintile, the one designated by the researchers as the "wealthiest Americans," is clearly suspect. Besides the fact that designating individuals with an annual income of $65,031 as the "wealthiest Americans" is ludicrous, the fifth quintile is three times greater than the previous four combined. Was this an oversight or a blatant attempt to fabricate findings that indicate a greater representation of the "wealthiest Americans" in the military?

In drawing their conclusions, the researchers interpret their data as follows:

"... more than three-quarters (76.5%) of enlisted recruits come from neighborhoods where the median family income is more than $40,000 per year."

What Watkins and Sherk fail to mention, however, is that their findings also indicate that more than three-quarters (75.03 percent) of enlisted recruits come from neighborhoods with incomes of less than $65,000, and only 6.15 percent from neighborhoods with an income of over $90,000.

Had the researchers divided this fifth quintile into sets more commensurate with the first four, say in increments of about $12,000-$15,000, their findings would have further corroborated my contention that the number of individuals with military service decrease exponentially as the levels of income increase. Also indicated is that not one individual from a household with an income exceeding $246,333, the demographic more reasonably designated as the "wealthiest Americans," serves in the military. Given these and other discrepancies and abnormalities, it is clear that the Heritage Foundation Study is flawed, that it is either sloppy research or intended to deceive. In either case, it warrants little if any credibility and, not only does it fail to refute my thesis, it affirms it.

One final point, given war's extreme profitability for the privileged and the wealthy (the corporatists, bankers, politicians - the military-industrial, Congressional complex) and the fact that with the AVF, they and/or their children will never step onto the battlefield and suffer war's deleterious effects, it is not surprising, therefore, that our nation is embroiled in a quagmire with the longest and most expensive war in American history. As the wars and occupations continue virtually ignored except by the small percentage of Americans who are directly impacted by the killing and dying - members of the military and their families - voices from both ends of the political spectrum are calling for the reinstatement of the draft as a means of sharing the burden of military service, or to "reinvigorate" the peace movement. I have always opposed the draft as immoral and unconstitutional, but as the situation in this country has grown dire, drastic measures are required. Consequently, as much as it pains me to say, I think that the most plausible solution to what can only be described as war profiteering and a violation of the principle of universal obligation and shared sacrifice, is to reinstate the draft, but with a stipulation. Unless and until these gross economic inequities are remedied and educational and employment opportunities are made available to all, only those young men and women whose families earn an annual income exceeding $250,000 will be subject to mandatory military service with few if any exemptions other than REAL, documented and severe medical impairment. This "Fairness Draft," will accomplish three important goals. First, it helps furnish the manpower necessary to sustain the AVF and ensure the national defense. Second, it satisfies both the intent of the social contract and the principle of distributive justice by ensuring that the burden of military service is shared equally by all segments of the population, regardless of economic status. Lastly and. perhaps most importantly, as the cost-benefit analysis changes, that is, should the lives and well-being of the children of the privileged and the wealthy - the progeny of bankers, corporate executives, politicians etc. - be placed at risk, the frequency and number of wars will decrease significantly. By providing a fair distribution of sacrifice, with fewer unnecessary and immoral wars, and the eventual educational and employment opportunity for all, the Fairness Draft is a good first step toward creating a more perfect union and ensuring that the alleged struggle to end terrorism no longer remains a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight."

Footnotes:

1. David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie, Penguin Press HC, (October 24, 2006)
2. Ibid, p. 85.
3. John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Hackett Publishing Company, (1980).

Last modified on Sunday, 13 February 2011 09:33