The Petrodraft: (III of III)
This is Part Three of an in-depth three-part essay on the possibility and implications of military conscription in America. Part One is here and Part Two is here.
-by Y. Kleftis
Hearts of Darkness (III of III)
The American Mind
The possibility of conscription offends American moral sensibilities on the left and right. Americans almost invariably define "freedom" in terms of liberal individualism1, which accounts for some of their resistance to conscription and shows the limitations of their understanding of freedom and its necessities. The opposite of liberal individualism is often characterized as slavery, an assertion based myopically on America's own moral predicaments which often gives free pass to the supposed "individualism" of U.S. banks and corporations. The boogieman of "collectivism" permits the violent rejection of universal legal and moral norms, so that American freedom rejects social order and good based in law and right and substitutes chaotic adventures in profit, such as those characterizing the conquest of north America. The glorification of individualism can be turned quickly into a justification for generalized militarism: few sights are more absurd than the U.S. masses collectively asserting their "individuality" as they consume corporate-owned entertainment through cowboy movies and their orientalist and science fiction permutations. Thus, although "freedom" in general justifies U.S. warfare, a very particular, and rather limited, concept of freedom promotes itself in actuality.
In turn, war has become one commodity among many that liberal individualists are "free to choose", rather than a fateful American tradition and a human catastrophe. Liberal individualists tend to think of themselves as more or less squeaky cogs in a machine, so they can easily separate a view of themselves as just or good individuals from their support and enjoyment of U.S. capitalism's society and culture. The steady replacement in U.S. public discourse of citizens by consumers has only reinforced these long-held beliefs, such that Americans who feel "free to consume" war, whether through video games or nuclear missiles, act with reluctance when required to produce it. A clear example of this willful liberal naiveté appears in the deluded, self-serving young Kerry, whose comments on "the last man to die for a mistake" move U.S. war-making from the systematic to the arbitrary, and, by implication, assert that U.S. slaughter of "gooks" and "sand niggers" like buffalo would be less "mistaken" through better "intelligence".2
In fact, buyer's remorse animates much of the soft anti-war sentiment, and it is the buyer whose fangs emerge at the threat of defeat from the blowback of returned products. It should be clear to all that Iraq has never been a "war of choice" made in the liberal utopia of a transparent marketplace, but rather a necessary and deceptive plan intended to insure the survival of U.S. capitalism. As commodity, war is swallowed whole with a deluded, scientific detachment; indeed, the war in Iraq has correctly been seen as a test on humankind for a variety of horrifying technologies and business ideas, in which U.S. soldiers stand in as the control group. Contradictions abound when Americans fanatically concerned with "personal hygiene" think little about excreting radioactivity, poisons, and bombs on non-American mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons. In sum, the freedom to consume war is also the freedom to exempt oneself from the moral consequences of its production.3
This is the cultural basis for the development of an "all-mercenary" military in a society lacking social democratic conditions: soldiers choose to fight, so war becomes primarily a problem of U.S. capitalism's ability to pay, and not that of labor, justice, or even freedom.4 The language of profit becomes the language of living and dying. The troops do a "job", get "wages", and provide a "service", while duty and necessity remain secondary considerations, regardless of the stated motives of some individual soldiers. Nonetheless, even if the abolition of the Vietnam draft reinforced the liberal individualism of yuppies and their children, the culture and economy of a privatized military will not be changed through support of a draft. At best, the claim that acquiescence to a draft will solve such problems is equivalent to waiting patiently for the self-destruction of capitalism before building a new order, with the reward for such self-interested "patience" arriving through the killing of innocents for years to come. Possible forms of "good" citizenship will not be restored through militarized "national service" during a war of aggression; it should be obvious that rejection of militarism through draft resistance is not the same as calling for and agreeing to conscription. If such citizenship arrives, it will be only through draft resistance based on the universal good of humankind, and not complicity to conscription for nationalistic and individualistic notions of duty and right.
War is a cultural and historical phenomenon5; accordingly, conscription considered on the basis of idealism alone implies that it is an absolute, but abstract, good. It is in this respect that "good-hearted", "responsible", and "left" liberals are the greatest menace for the revival of a draft. It is a dangerous lie to believe that the left will transform the U.S. state from within through removing its supporters from civil society and integrating them into a military structure, especially when such luxurious experiments in "citizenship" will cause the deaths of tens of thousands. "Conscientious objectors" do nothing of the sort when they support, however indirectly, the offices and machines of war. Only liberal "humanitarianism" can unabashedly promote a draft for "peace, security, and stability" by suckling on the fantasy that clementia has no relationship with auctoritas6. Liberal "multiculturalism" points to the military as an institution of social justice, as though the U.S. was the first empire in history to have multiethnic fighters, peoples, or ruling classes. Most pine only for profit and glory when they hiss venomously about "humanitarian" prevention of "multicultural" chaos upon U.S. withdrawal, and not for the suffering innocents and the dead.
Other ghosts haunt reformist liberalism: in the well-organized, powerful unions of Germany during the Second International, the leadership advised people to be drafted, thus earning eternal shame by causing the collapse of left solidarity internationally and years of senseless bloodshed in the first World War. Ominously reminiscent of the Belle Époque nearly a century ago, there are also selfish suggestions that war is therapeutic, claiming that it will cause American youth to "grow up", become "healthy", and learn about the "real world". Other countries with "national service" programs are not law-breaking, surpassingly aggressive, and threatened empires, nor have they always instituted such measures during wartime. The struggle for hegemony over world capitalism lay at the root of two world wars and numerous smaller conflicts; given the continuities the U.S. shares with that era, there is no reason to suppose that the next century will be otherwise without determined resistance and the active creation of a new order. Ignorance of these realities shows intellectual as well as political failings. It should be self-evident that conscription in Germany under the fascists is not the same as that of their resisters in the Balkans, who were of course called "terrorists" by the occupiers.
Many on the right understand well that liberalism need not be linked to democracy, and they prove it by pointing to the history of the U.S., the British empire, and various comprador regimes.7 Even the "good war" of World War II, when not colored by a lens of propaganda which neglects U.S. apartheid and misperceives the U.S. international role8, betrays the easy relationship liberalism can share with fascism.9 As "moderation" shifts toward a 21st century American fascism, perhaps more akin to Latin America's than the older European variety, jack-booted marchers have been replaced by sober battalions of S.U.V.s and motorcycles.10 Especially with the erosion of rural society through suburbanization, almost all Americans now rely on an oil economy and wage-labor; consequently, they feel heavily dependent on U.S. capitalism's success despite its obvious injustice, and can hardly imagine other possibilities in the near total absence of their social existence. In such conditions, the soft support of liberal reformism adds fossil fuel to the fire of war, for there is no question that conscription will generalize militarism and extend the life of U.S. capitalism by solving in the immediate term its labor and profit problems.
Obviously, draft resistance is only part of a program against U.S. militarism, which should include reduction of the current forces, withdrawal from the worldwide network of bases, restoration of the environment, and payment of reparations. If others want to volunteer for the aggressors in international class warfare, the burden of proving the case lies entirely on them. To seriously oppose militarism, we must acknowledge that a call for an end to war-making is also a call to end the biggest state-support of the U.S. economy. Remember that it is the massive military, not social security or other U.S. government programs, that desperately indebts itself and requires additional labor every couple of weeks to avoid collapse. To truly advocate an anti-militarist position, the entire society and culture will have to be radically restructured far beyond a simple change of political governance and a reshuffling of Ivy League boys.
A Defeatist Mentality
The only way for the global left to win is for America to lose, especially the crucial war in Iraq, as a precondition, not a guarantee, of a more peaceful and just world. The constant comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam reveal much about U.S. political culture, but tell us very little about the current moment, for history consistently refuses to be atomized so easily into comparative models for the present. Essentially unique, our moment cannot be dissected like a hand from a body, instrumentalized into mechanical predictions, bloodless prescriptions, and mindless lessons, and be expected to survive the experiment. Moreover, such false "objectivity" can obscure persistent continuities and tendencies, as well as limit our ultimate freedom of action. In this light, we can argue from our present view within the Iraq war that the U.S. fought in Vietnam for almost luxurious political and ideological causes, so there should be no illusion during the current wars about a sudden lack of will on the part of U.S. rulers, be they pachyderms or asses.
As tragic as some U.S. deaths may appear, the central story in the eyes of the world is not U.S. casualties. From an Iraqi perspective, it took nearly 15 years for anti-war sentiment to develop in the U.S. after years of bombings with terrible weapons and sanctions that killed millions, especially children, but insured, nevertheless, the flow of oil to the global North. During the current U.S./U.K. occupation, nominally to depose a misbehaving C.I.A. agent maintained for decades as Iraq's cruel dictator, over 90% of the world's population opposed further violence against the Iraqi people, but deeply rooted anti-democratic forces in the U.S. prevailed. We must recognize that the current killing in Iraq is an act of weakness by a deteriorating empire with no other means but the military to support the socioeconomic necessities of its "way of life"; furthermore, without the support of military labor, the linchpin of U.S. might in economic, military, and cultural realms will slip away.
Americans hate to lose and do not consider it part of the political culture. In the absence of a formal aristocracy, the capitalist class, whether enslaving plantation owners, labor-owning industrialists, or bellicose financiers, has been always at the core of the U.S. political class. Past warfare on their behalf drips from the pores of weapons and machines shamelessly called "Black Hawk", "Apache", and "Tomahawk", and we can reasonably expect that exploitation of millions of indigenous Americans and their natural birthrights will intensify as the crisis deepens.11 The murderous discontinuity with America's native inhabitants has further limited the U.S. world view, for the U.S. in general still has great trouble envisioning for itself any other social order or any other relationship with nature, primarily out of a cultural pubescence and, we must admit, savagery. An immature historical consciousness permits political manipulation of Americans who cannot clearly remember lies from the previous month; accordingly, most Americans will not be able to create other alternatives, even in their wildest imagination, without a determined reexamination of the U.S. in world history. This hard-won consciousness, especially in the history-deprived United States, will seep necessarily into the future content of everyday action. Let the absence of victory, then, be America's therapy and spur to greater maturity, as it has been for other erstwhile empires.
To break U.S. militarism's will to power, the left must consistently attack capitalist ideas and self-conceptions. This struggle for "hearts and minds" is the actual "clash of civilizations" or "culture war", for the war "machine" cannot operate without directed hands and determined intellects. In general, liberal individualism remains unsuited for adequate social and cultural analysis, primarily because truth lies in the whole, not the parts; under liberalism, human society becomes a collection of atoms and not the unified expression of a culture. It is not enough that the socioeconomics of capitalism are impossibly dangerous and unsustainable in reality, they must also be understood and anticipated as such. Recall the hierarchy of cause from the beginning of this essay: as we ascend the scale to more generalized, encompassing reasons for the current violence, we also approach the inner, subjective, determining motivations of U.S. society and culture, thus setting aside a focus on the existence of individuals, including the current presidential competitors. Consequently, the long-view of victory for the left also means actively sowing the seeds of what some might term a "defeatist mentality" to undermine liberal capitalism at the cultural level, thus continually preparing the ground for new political and socioeconomic possibilities.
The possibility of a draft ripens daily, so the left should formulate its position now and frame the debate. Certainly, anti-draft organization will be easier, given that such bills could pass as quickly as the winter 2004 legislative session, so that troops can be fielded by spring 2005.12 The threat of conscription will loom as long as the U.S. profit method meets resistance. As calls for conscription intensify, the U.S. left should never forget that it is in a unique position worldwide to deny labor power to the U.S. empire, which could prove the greatest contribution yet to insure that significant parts of the world are not abandoned to war. Continued dollar dominance will pay for extending U.S. power into Latin America, Africa, Europe, and Asia, so it is manifestly a concern of all peoples in the world if U.S. capitalism strengthens through increased military labor. Genuine anti-war movements should issue statements refuting conscription, offer peaceful alternatives at the structural level, and use any pressure for a draft to expose the systematic links between U.S. militarism and capitalism. The debate over conscription must move beyond nationally centered immediacies to the level of history and culture, for it is only at this level that we can begin to assess the universal principles at stake.
This three-part essay aimed at articulating an "intellectual self-defense" against forced military labor by linking socioeconomic realities with the political culture that lies at their heart. It has only hinted at a comprehensive program for action; nevertheless, in the current militaristic zeitgeist, only militant resistance may suffice to oppose bloodlust and misanthropy. A U.S. draft may be impossible to stop, but let leftists proceed with optimism of the will and not shame themselves before their children and their children's children. If disgust with mass murder, apocalyptic war-making, and self-annihilating consumption cannot motivate some, imagine the shock and alarm worldwide when deluded, lawless, and armed Americans gird their loins with primitive desires and set off, once again, to intensify the battle.
Y. Kleftis can be reached at email@example.com.
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