By now, every political commentator has offered a suggestion for how Donald Trump ended up as president of these United States. Few have missed their targets as badly as Damon Linker's most recent offering, which suggests that we could have avoided President Trump if only the government had remained committed, for the past 40-plus years, to a policy that forced young Americans to die in foreign wars.
Linker, a senior correspondent at The Week, suggests that historians will ultimately trace the rise of Trump to the decline in social cohesion that began, yes, with the abolition of military conscription in 1973. Ending the draft, Linker says, was a "catalyst for some of the most pernicious tendencies in our politics" over the past few decades, leading to a rise in individualism and a decline in social togetherness.
"Only if we begin to rein in our individualism and learn to recognize once again the considerable personal and political rewards of contributing to something bigger than ourselves," he concludes.
This is utter nonsense. Almost all individuals voluntarily engage in pursuits that are "bigger than ourselves" when we find meaningful work, join a church, play on a team, form families, or volunteer for military service. The key difference, of course, is that individuals choose to do those things.
Suggesting that people are incapable of recognizing the importance of self-sacrifice or the value of a strong community without being forced into the ranks of the military under the threat of jail time is an astoundingly misguided understanding of how human beings operate.
Let's get the obvious, and most important, point out of the way first. The draft is immoral. It requires that individuals sacrifice their lives as means to political and geopolitical ends that they may not support and have no reason to give their lives for. Milton Friedman was absolutely right when he said that the draft was a form of slavery (and he considered ending military conscription in America to be his greatest policy achievement).
But Linker doesn't appear to be making an argument about the morality of the draft. He's actually trying to make some sort of an appeal for bringing back the draft as a form of social engineering. If that's not more appalling than using the draft for the purpose that it was originally conceived—as a way to feed human beings into the destructive gristmill of war, possibly against their will—then it is certainly pretty close.
Even if you buy Linker's idea that it's okay to conscript your fellow human beings into a form of militarized slavery in order to build a cohesive society, the argument still falls apart on a practical level.
That's because the claim that the draft itself was somehow responsible for maintaining societal cohesion independent of other cultural, social, or political factors—"nothing builds social cohesion like a call for shared sacrifice," Linker writes—ignores the actual reality of the 33 years, from 1940 through 1973, when military conscription was in use.
Suggesting that bringing back military conscription will restore the level of social cohesion that America enjoyed during the 1940s and 1950s imbues the draft with an unrealistic, outsized role in the culture of those decades. It was one factor of many. Reinstituting the draft today would no more recreate the cultural and social landscape of the 1950s than telling the NHS to get to work on resurrecting the rotting corpse of Glenn Miller or creating a national program to subsidize "big band" music would.
Even if you could bring back all the elements of that supposedly more cohesive American society of the 1940s and 1950s, would you want to?
That era in America was, in part, the result of governmental policies only slightly less noxious than the draft itself. I'm speaking, of course, about the legal segregation of African Americans, and the laws that prohibited interracial and homosexual relationships, along a whole litany of cultural mores that we've cast-off in the intervening years. Those changes have done far more to make America more diverse, and therefore less socially cohesive, than abolishing the draft did, but they've also allowed individuals to live more free lives. I'd say that trade-off was worth it.
Give Linker credit for one thing, though. He correctly identifies the lack of a draft with the lack of a robust anti-war movement in the United States. "For all the opposition occasionally voiced by pundits in response to the brief and largely successful Persian Gulf War, the interminable war in Afghanistan, and the disastrous Iraq War (not to mention the numerous smaller military engagements pursued by presidents over the past 40 years), we've seen no sustained widespread expression of anti-war sentiment since the early 1970s," he writes, "no doubt in part because the vast majority of Americans know they will never be compelled to serve in the armed forces. It's hard to get too worked up about a war if it never directly touches your own life or the lives of your friends and family."
I agree that there would be more opposition to America's current foreign policy if there were a military draft. Still, reinstating the draft is not worth it; two wrongs don't make a right.
Linker actually undercuts his own argument here. There's little reason to believe that reinstating the draft would recreate that supposedly utopian cohesiveness of 1950s America and every reason to think that it would cause uprisings and protests along the lines of those that ultimately killed conscription in the 1960s and 1970s. In the already heated political environment of today, that would hardly create the cohesion he's seeking.
Besides, there is broad political opposition to the state of constant war, even if it's not as vocal or as explosive as it was in the late 1960s. The 2016 election—the very result of which Linker somehow believes was influenced by the lack of a military draft—was the third consecutive presidential election in which the winner was the more anti-war (or at least less interventionist) major party candidate. If anything, the existence of a draft might only have served to push more voters to Trump's side in the most recent presidential race – or perhaps it would have required Democrats to nominate a candidate who was not quite so interested in using American troops abroad.
Linker's appeal to social cohesion also ignores the reality of how the draft worked—or, rather, how it worked for those who were rich and well-connected enough to avoid it.
Far from being an egalitarian practice of we-are-all-in-this-together-ism, military conscription was a system riddled with loopholes. More than 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam, but Donald Trump was lucky enough to be diagnosed with "bone spurs" that kept him out of the war.
It's not the lack of a draft that gave us President Trump; rather, it is special privileges like the one granted to Trump that, in part, brought down the draft.
The idea that military conscription is some sort of secret sauce for a cohesive society—or, as Linker suggests, that the lack of a draft is somehow responsible for the social and political upheaval that produced President Trump—makes sense only if you ignore the historical, political, and moral implications of the suggestion.