The Petrodraft (II of III)

This is Part Two of an in-depth three-part essay on the possibility and implications of military conscription in America. Part One is here and Part Three is here.

- by Y. Kleftis

The Freedom to Kill

The Work of Empire

The condensed discussion of a complex, half-century long process in the first part shows fundamental elements of capitalism's current social and economic order, and specifically the U.S. role as its principal protagonist. It does not exhaust all details, but situates important objective features of U.S. capitalism for the sake of our concern with conscription. Without a socioeconomic analysis in mind, all talk of "duty", "sacrifice", and "citizenship" falls off the sheer cliff of ahistorical abstraction, opening up the U.S. left to manipulation and delusion. Socioeconomic realities are basic materials out of which a critique and reorganization of U.S. political culture must take place.

Doubtlessly, the extraction of the most precious fuel in the world requires organized effort, for industry and profit demand nothing less; thus, millions must be forged into a single, disciplined beast for the existential and sacred task of acquisition. Almost all important members of the U.S. elite, including senators, generals, and pro-war intellectuals, have acknowledged the limits of domination based on capital-intensive technology and relatively low numbers of soldiers.1 Although the manufacture and sale of unused tanks and planes is more profitable than the creation of needed body armor, a conquering power still must put troops on the ground and keep them there to meet its ultimate ambitions. It is here that the war "machine" encounters human labor. Labor is the Achilles' heel of the U.S. capitalist empire.

Only the election has prevented the passage of draft bills. Neither one of the Skull-and-Bones Yalies vying for (s)election in November can openly call for a draft, but their supporters in Congress who are not subject to the next round of corrupted elections have circulated the idea. Obviously, the two parties' leadership does not want to sabotage their presidential candidate with a push for the draft, although the draft has the support of the same politicians that created the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, Homeland Security, and the Patriot Acts. Even if some politicians are not clearly aware of the oil-dollar-military link, concentrating instead on the problems of glory, their important advisors certainly are conscious of the profit problem. The Republicans may have built a one-party state, but they still must compete with the Democrats over the executive to retain a semblance of legal authority. 2 The U.S. military needs to solve its labor shortage immediately, but it cannot do so for reasons internal to the legitimacy of U.S. power, so the empire will flounder without sufficient troops through the summer and fall of 2004.

This labor problem will become even more acute by the end of year, and will persist through the next presidential term. Despite claims by the U.S. military that retention and recruitment rates are sufficient, their deeds belie their words. The military continues to outsource support, combat, and interrogation tasks to contractors, thus using capital to shore up labor needs. The U.S. military has been found trolling among the native American peoples of Canada, and been caught lying to departed soldiers to get them to reenlist. Soldiers stationed in Europe and eastern Asia have been transferred to the Middle East, and more reserve troops have been activated in a final effort to fill the gap before formally calling for a draft. 3 Only half of all soldiers in Iraq want to reenlist4, even in the face of signing bonuses, while so-called "stop loss" provisions prevent currently deployed soldiers from leaving the military, thus dispelling the notion of "volunteer" service.5 This has correctly been called the "beginning of the draft".6

Those soldiers who have returned to the U.S. face serious economic and family difficulties, as well as sickness from experimental drug "cocktails" injected in them while under orders and exposure to depleted uranium (D.U.), an extremely hard and cheap waste metal from nuclear power plants used on armor, shells, and bombs. In the Gulf War of the early 1990s, estimates of sick soldiers ranged from 30% to 50% of the more than one million actually deployed. Those returning home with war trophies often sicken their families. In the 2003 war, the U.S./U.K. dropped at least an additional 2,200 tons of D.U., about eight times as much as they did during the early 1990s war. The U.S. military denies scientific evidence and common sense, refuses to reveal bombing sites, and rejects medical treatment for the millions of exposed persons. The first rotation of U.S. troops returned mid-spring of 2004, so we should expect to see increased illness and deformed offspring among them by this winter, with obvious effects on morale and capability. Of course, for the peoples of the Fertile Crescent, as well as those of the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Caribbean 7, the poisoning of earth, water, and air by this radioactive heavy metal is nothing less than genocide.

A U.S. draft is primarily about killing, not dying. In the last U.S. draft for the wars in southeast Asia, more than a quarter of the 9 million active duty troops were draftees over the almost 15 year period. Of the total active duty troops, less than one-fifth had exposure to combat. Of those exposed to combat, under 5% suffered mortal wounds; meaning that well under 1% of the total active duty U.S. soldiers died from battle. As a proportion of the U.S. population, the approximately 50 thousand dead fighters were miniscule. By contrast, more than 10% of the whole population of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam died during the U.S. phase of the violence. In terms of the Vietnam-era U.S., it would be as if more than 25 million men, women, and children died, the vast majority of them innocent non-combatants. These figures ignore the number of wounded on both sides, typically many times the number of dead. After the U.S. retreat, more Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians continued to die or suffer horribly from extreme poverty, political violence, unexploded bombs and mines, and the various poisons of contemporary war; yet, they defeated U.S. forces militarily, politically, and morally. Given the awesomely improved odds of American survival for the current set of wars, jingoistic fantasies about "self-sacrifice" and "death in combat" smack of murderous narcissism.

To insure that the burden of killing can be practically and politically possible, there have been changes to the U.S. draft law since Vietnam. In 1971, the U.S. government mandated that draft boards become "diverse", although the core of the draft boards remains older white males.8 New rules place 18-26 year olds in the highest draft priority for only one year, lowering thereafter their priority each year, thus minimizing the constant anxiety of induction a potential draftee might have until age 26. College seniors are allowed to finish their last year, but students can no longer defer indefinitely, instead being permitted to finish the current semester before induction. 9 In the winter of 2001 during the war in Afghanistan, Canada and the U.S. signed a "Smart Border Declaration", setting up among other provisions a "pre-clearance agreement" for travelers, thus creating a bureaucratic instrument that would retain otherwise reluctant draftees behind U.S. borders. 10

The proposed bills submitted last year, entitled the "Universal National Service Act" 11, include women in any future draft; soon fit enough to kill and die, U.S. women as a whole have never been fit enough to make much more than three-fourths of men's wages. In perhaps the most hypocritical suggestion, "green card" U.S. permanent residents could face conscription as well. Not only do these people lack political and legal rights, including the capacity to vote for their commander-in-chief, but also they often lack sufficiently powerful passports to leave the country and settle elsewhere, thus effectively trapping them in the U.S. and making them ripe targets for conscription and loyalty tests due to their political weakness. How many Iraqis, Palestinians, Yugoslavs, Afghanis, and others, who may live in the country due to U.S.-directed violence in their home country, will be expected to bear the ultimate responsibility, without rights or representation, on behalf of jingoistic U.S. citizens? 12 These draft reforms, emphasizing the rhetoric of "fairness", effectively marginalize questions about the justice of American warfare in the first place.

The "Hidden Hand" Wields Carrot and Stick

A general draft could take a few possible forms, given the labor shortage in all areas of securing the empire domestically and internationally. The Democratic party's John Kerry, the good cop to Bush II's bad cop, has been especially forceful in proclaiming an "army of patriots", linking the need for this "army" directly to terrorism.13 This formulation is only possible for those who willingly conflate the causes of 9/11/01 with those of the Iraq war. The "Anybody But Bush" camp, which not coincidentally clamors for Ralph Nader to leave the stage, remains especially problematic in this regard.14

The hope of salvation from a righteous king, after having overcome an evil usurping prince, would likely soften resistance to the new royal's proposal for conscription. Kerry, having volunteered for combat, maintains a far better position than Bush to rally for a "change in course" in the form of international collaboration in Iraq and compulsory U.S. conscription; indeed, the systematic danger of U.S. imperialism may actually be greater under Kerry. Kerry is not the messiah to save the U.S. from itself, and no one on his team is willing to back down on U.S.-led capitalism. As National Guard and other reserves are pulled out of their communities for forward deployment, a cleverly costumed draft would seem to have a domestic "Homeland Security" face to replace the absent workers as well as an outward military face concentrated on support troops.15 To further prod the unwilling, education funding might be withheld until a person completed their "service". Further economic misery from unemployment, non-existent savings, and rising interest rates may even make appealing "service to country" combined with an education and training component in the guise of war-centered 21st century New Deal.16

Amidst the flag-waving, poor U.S. youth already understand the grim necessities of U.S. citizenship in degraded schools, homes, and businesses, surrounded by an unhealthy natural environment. Re-segregated into vanilla suburbs and chocolate cities, many young people face every day declining real wages, inadequate medical care, expensive transportation, as well as non-unionized workplaces, such as the infamous U.S. prisons. Crashing down on U.S. blacks especially, the "world's policemen" incarcerate more human beings in absolute and relative terms than all other countries, and can permanently deprive citizens of their political rights after they have completed their sentence. 17

The racially-targeted prohibition of voting and its obvious value to the right during the 2000 presidential election should energize the "citizenship" camp more than the presumed "good" of "service" to the "nation"; certainly, if the actual practices of U.S. imprisonment produce a particular racial order worldwide, then theories of crime and punishment which have inspired "murder, rape, and torture-lite" 18 must create that racial order as well, whether they are justified on the basis of a war on drugs or a war on terror. Regardless of the particular consciousness of the conscripted, if their freedom of action remains bound by unyielding objective conditions, the military may appeal more than prison or poverty. In the event of conscription more intense than the current "poverty draft", poor, uneducated, and racialized youth, already undergoing harsher deprivations than their betters, will be expected to provide the "grunt" force needed to do the physical jobs of surveillance, maintenance, and occupation. They will see that their life is not a sacred flame to the U.S. state; it's a wage.

The Pentagon, however, concerns itself with a draft for military power, not a definition of citizenship. It would seem self-evident that Bush would support a draft; yet, the executive branch and its military profess opposition, not wishing to create conditions for greater mass resistance to militarism, as witnessed in the previous generation, or encourage a mixing of classes under the explicit framework of compulsion. Moreover, a universal draft requiring all people of a certain age to join would be expensive, drawing away from the profitability of the military, while the labor need is too acute to wait several months or longer to create trained troops capable of operating the machines of war and following military discipline. 19

A privatized military keeps the economy of war separate from the politics of violence; however, draftees could be trained in a few months to guard bases and other facilities, drive trucks, cook food, and so on, thus freeing the "volunteer professionals" to concentrate on repression. If draftees stay shielded from the direct consequences of killing and dying, then they might collectively accede to induction in an atmosphere of propagandistic, panicked patriotism. Nonetheless, a draft of "exceptionalism" is even more likely than a general draft, based on recent proposals by the Selective Service Administration. 20

Indeed, the self-serving anxiety over the potential "fairness" of a general draft has been supplanted in some discussions by the particular necessities of the war state, according to the argument that labor is not just quantity, but also quality.21 The "special-skills" draft, favored by the Pentagon, could raise the draft age to 44, meaning of course that the draft is not problem for youth activists alone. Medical workers in more than sixty specialties are targeted, as well as those with computer competence. Anyone with knowledge of Arabic, Persian, or any of the Afghan dialects and languages will also fall in the crosshairs. In the era of "war on the cheap", special-skills candidates look even more favorable, as the military does not have to pay for their training nor wait for their deployment, a less expensive and perhaps politically expedient option. A targeted draft, which would certainly extend to the so-called middle class in America's rapidly collapsing class ladder, limits the total number of draftees and minimizes the U.S. military's fears.

This "smart" draft would effectively divide and delay potential mass solidarity against militarism. These draftees would be more susceptible to the same middle class rationalizations and internalized capitalist values that permit them to argue against their own access to education, health care, political power, and so on. Too valuable to die on the frontlines, they could feel honor and even gratitude if drafted. What could be fairer than the "best and brightest" coming to the "defense" of the U.S. in war? 22 Thus, economic and political tendencies imply that universalism will devolve to digestible "exceptionalism" in any final draft proposal, perhaps greased down the throat by a new terrorist attack on the "homeland".

In a targeted draft, language "specialists" will help maintain the lawless, secret, and tortuous dungeons of the world, health care "professionals" will support members of the aggressing party and not the suffering innocents, computer "experts" and other scientists will see their abilities manipulated for the sake of genocidal violence. Politically-naive liberals (and "conservatives") may want to rethink their personal ambitions and view their privileged knowledge as a specific sector in the social division of labor. A reexamination of world history might stiffen their spines; war in our time is a total enterprise, and they too will be expected to submit, to kill, and to die accordingly, with or without gun in hand.

When were multilingual troops not needed in the conquest of north America? How do doctors benefit anyone when experimenting with chemicals and radioactivity on prisoners, soldiers, and the poor? Did teams of operations researchers and nuclear scientists actually kill fewer people in the end, or did they only increase the magnitude and immorality of the destruction? 23

The talk about "experts", "professionals", and "specialists" insidiously veils its class character, hiding structural inequality as well as the actual lack of merit in the "meritorious", and fosters a consciousness of "exceptionalism" on the basis of an aristocracy of labor. Whether they imagine themselves "liberal" or "conservative", those with "special-skills" would substitute so-called "American exceptionalism" for their duty to humankind as a whole, thus removing the mask of a sacrificial lamb to expose the grimaces of bloodthirsty sheep. Regardless of their stated intentions, if they willingly collaborate in the next self-created "emergency", they will soon discover that they, like the "coalition" soldiers, bureaucrats, and mercenaries, will never be guileless instruments; instead, these men and women will have migrated from the belly to the heart and soul of the beast.

Of course, the bitter pill can be sweetened in the Faustian bargain to serve the military. Any draft proposal will provide some relief from the massive school loan debt that collectively burdens young Americans, just as current military personnel receive a temporary exemption. The cost of education, reaching stratospheric heights in the last generation, is a serious practical problem poorly understood by older Americans. Education has historically been one of the crucial ways of retaining position on the ever-steeper U.S. class ladder, and its price has increased exponentially since the erosion of public education in general and the massive intrusion by banks into higher education since the 1970s. As the state has withdrawn support for an educated citizenry, privatization of education has given U.S. banks the power to price education according to the profit motives of finance capital.

Let us recall here Roger Freeman (sic) in 1970, a far-sighted advisor for Nixon and Reagan: "We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That's dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow to go through higher education."24 As a result, many American youth have been burdened with at least a decade or more of debt.25 Access to credit is paramount as real wages decline and fewer jobs are available, especially important during an age when landlords and employers make use of credit reports, and when the monthly debt load often requires obedient behavior in a corporate job to avoid default. Moreover, banks have pushed for changes in the law such that school debt has acquired the permanence of child support payments, illustrating not only the precariousness of the school debt framework, but also the logic of U.S. debt law: debt for commodities acquired through credit cards or mortgages remains dischargeable, but the long-term transfer of youth labor power to banks is inviolate.

In general, the privatization of education has been a consistent victory for U.S. capitalism, and education under its tutelage has direct implications for the draft. More and more U.S. universities are managed by bank and corporate personnel who came to prominence during the financial speculation of the last two decades. U.S. education, currently modeled along the "scientific management" principles of military and corporate organizations, instills an ethic of competition for limited access to ever-narrowing "specialized" education while it encourages a discipline of accumulation through grades, resume items, and recommendations. These practices accustom youth to following rules and pursuing tasks already set out for them by authorities, instead of reflecting on the content of their education and freely developing their minds. Who needs a thinking head and a feeling heart when youth can be induced to buy on credit a shiny new car? Under the current "poverty draft", the military openly advertises itself as the best way to gain skills instead of school, becoming for many the U.S. version of technical and vocational education.

To insure compliance, recent education legislation requires that high schools hand over student information and permit military recruitment on campus or face the loss of federal funding. At the same time, the "best" U.S. universities have dropped the pretense of meritocracy, and even education itself, through legacy admissions, simplistic classes, and grade inflation. It is widely acknowledged that U.S. youth are not as well educated as their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, beginning at the elementary and high school level, and these gaps remain at the university level and beyond, a fact which may help explain the endemic "intelligence failures" by the U.S. government. The lure of education and school debt relief will work to the advantage of draft proponents, for it cleverly deflects the politics of education and labor onto those of terrorism and war.

Y. Kleftis can be reached at


For the notes, please click this link.

Discussion List Issues: Debating Differences Between Vietnam and Iraq (1) Debating Differences Between Vietnam and Iraq (2) The Present Crisis of US Imperialism Is Marxism Still Relevant? (1) Is Marxism Still Relevant? (2) Is Marxism Still Relevant? (3) To join our discussion list, go here Join Our Info. List:
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