The Civilian War Footing Act

Damn the New York Times and its bleeping subscription wall — everybody should read Bob Herbert’s column today. I’ll quote some of it.

[Update: I see that the entire column has been posted by the Tennessee Guerilla Women. I appreciate this, but sooner or later the New York Times will send lawyers and make them stop.]

Americans are shopping while Iraq burns.

The competing television news images on the morning after Thanksgiving were of the unspeakable carnage in Sadr City — where more than 200 Iraqi civilians were killed by a series of coordinated car bombs — and the long lines of cars filled with holiday shopping zealots that jammed the highway approaches to American malls that had opened for business at midnight. …

… There is something terribly wrong with this juxtaposition of gleeful Americans with fistfuls of dollars storming the department store barricades and the slaughter by the thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, including old people, children and babies. The war was started by the U.S., but most Americans feel absolutely no sense of personal responsibility for it.

Representative Charles Rangel recently proposed that the draft be reinstated, suggesting that politicians would be more reluctant to take the country to war if they understood that their constituents might be called up to fight. What struck me was not the uniform opposition to the congressman’s proposal — it has long been clear that there is zero sentiment in favor of a draft in the U.S. — but the fact that it never provoked even the briefest discussion of the responsibilities and obligations of ordinary Americans in a time of war.

What frustrated me was that even some people who acknowledged Rangel’s basic purpose responded with ponderous explanations of why a volunteer army is better than a conscripted army. Of course it is. That’s not the point.

Rangel’s point is that the burden of fighting the war is falling disproportionately on poorer Americans than richer ones. Whether the draft is the way to make things equitable is debatable, however. As Katha Pollitt writes,

Supporters of the draft are using it to promote indirectly politics we should champion openly and up front. It’s terrible that working-class teenagers join the Army to get college funds, or job training, or work–what kind of nation is this where Jessica Lynch had to invade Iraq in order to fulfill her modest dream of becoming an elementary school teacher and Shoshanna Johnson had to be a cook on the battlefield to qualify for a culinary job back home? But the solution isn’t to force more people into the Army, it’s affordable education and good jobs for all. Nobody should have to choose between risking her life–or as we see in Abu Ghraib, her soul–and stocking shelves at Wal-Mart. By the same token, threatening our young with injury, madness and death is a rather roundabout way to increase resistance to military adventures. I’d rather just loudly insist that people who favor war go fight in it themselves or be damned as showboaters and shirkers. I’m sure the Army can find something for Christopher Hitchens to do.

To me, however, the point is not about equitably sharing the burden of fighting. The point is that there’s something obscenely decadent about a nation that can perpetrate a war outside its borders as casually as you might order pizza.

Herbert continues,

With no obvious personal stake in the war in Iraq, most Americans are indifferent to its consequences. …

… This indifference is widespread. It enables most Americans to go about their daily lives completely unconcerned about the atrocities resulting from a war being waged in their name. While shoppers here are scrambling to put the perfect touch to their holidays with the purchase of a giant flat-screen TV or a PlayStation 3, the news out of Baghdad is of a society in the midst of a meltdown.

I say the draft is not enough. In fact, I’ve thought up a whole new way to get the nation to pay attention to what it’s perpetrating — The Civilian War Footing Act. The Act’s provisions would kick in automatically whenever U.S. troops are involved in a military action lasting more than 30 days or in which even one U.S. soldier, marine, or sailor has died.

The Civilian War Footing Act could reinstate the draft, whether it’s needed or not. The military could choose not to accept any conscripts it really doesn’t need or want, but perhaps we could require that conscripts at least report for a physical. Make ’em think about it, in other words. But here are the more important provisions:

Gas rationing would kick in automatically, needed or not; anyone who burns more than a tank a week is going to have to be inconvenienced. Taxes would increase across the board to pay for the war’s actual cost. On top of that, at least one hour of prime-time television programming would be pre-empted every evening for either war news or a bond drive telethon. This pre-emption would be random, so that you’d never know if your favorite program will be on or not.

Every citizen between the age of 18 and 75 (not already in the military or subject to the military draft) would be subject to a national lottery. The “winners” would be required to report for duty at a military hospital to care for the wounded, or unload and accompany coffins to the soldier’s families. The period of service could be short — two to four weeks –but no exemptions except for serious health issues would be allowed. Only a small part of the civilian population would ever be called, but the fact that it could happen to anyone ought to weigh on peoples’ minds.

(I thought about using voter registration rolls for the lottery, but decided that might discourage voting. The patriotic duty deadbeats who don’t even bother to vote ought not be given a pass.)

The purpose of the Civilian War Footing Act is to be a big, fat, stinky foot in civilian faces: Pay attention. There’s a war going on in your name and with your implied consent. Are you OK with this?

Bob Herbert continues,

Iraq burns. We shop. The Americans dying in Iraq are barely mentioned in the press anymore. They warrant may be one sentence in a long roundup article out of Baghdad, or a passing reference — no longer than a few seconds — in a television news account of the latest political ditherings.

Since the vast majority of Americans do not want anything to do with the military or the war, the burden of fighting has fallen on a small cadre of volunteers who are being sent into the war zone again and again. Nearly 3,000 have been killed, and many thousands more have been maimed.

The war has now lasted as long as the American involvement in World War II. But there is no sense of collective sacrifice in this war, no shared burden of responsibility. The soldiers in Iraq are fighting, suffering and dying in a war in which there are no clear objectives and no end in sight, and which a majority of Americans do not support.

They are dying anonymously and pointlessly, while the rest of us are free to buckle ourselves into the family vehicle and head off to the malls and shop.

I don’t think most of these people are “bad” people. They’re spoiled; they’re indifferent; they’re clueless. Many of them probably don’t think there’s anything they can do to stop the war (Democracy? What’s that?) so they tune it out.

But the provisions of The Civilian War Footing Act will see to it they can’t tune it out. And if a majority of Americans don’t want to be inconvenienced, they have to stop the war. And the politicians who started the bleeping war had better have a bleeping good excuse, or their careers are over.

I’d like to think that if the U.S. faced a genuine threat, Americans would respond and do whatever it took, as long as it took, to save our country. But starting a war is a serious matter that requires serious consideration. I would have thought that, after Vietnam, the nation would know better than to allow itself to be railroaded into another foreign quagmire, but here we are again.

Clearly, we need to learn to think twice about war. And if the alleged threat is more hypothetical than imminent, then let’s learn to just say no.

11 thoughts on “The Civilian War Footing Act

  1. The Civilian War Footing Act is absolutely right on and brilliant.

    Maha, you have proven your leadership on ideas and common sense a thousand-plus times, but this idea really tops those thousand pluses already registered in your column.

    Now, how to legislate such an Act for the sanity of America….

  2. Well, as always I object to even the concept of reinstating the draft for ANY reason. I understand the arguments, I just disagree.


    The idea of forcing the country onto a “war footing” is brilliant, I think … perhaps not “gas rationing whether we need it or not”, but certainly raised taxes, preempting television as you describe, some sort of random national service.

    And, if the draft MUST BE reinstated, I really like your idea of actually running the lottery, having people show up for service, and allowing the military to reject if they want to. That way the military can remain a professional, all volunteer organization for as long as physically possible, and if for some reason it’s no longer possible, the machinery to reinforce their numbers will already be in place and running. Plus it’ll make everybody think about things pretty hard, I think.

    Course, as long as we’re in this general legal neighborhood, I’d also WAYWAYWAY tighten up laws governing where and how a president can deploy troops without a declaration of war. The need for that authority is there, it exists, but presidents should not be able to use it to do an end run around congress and have whatever war they feel like. CONGRESS has the power to wage war, not the president.


  3. Calling US soldiers “volunteers” is, for the most part, a misnomer.

    They are financial hostages or refugees… people without access to or the means to pursue an education that would give them an alternate career path.

    The Republicans countered the end of the draft by starving the Department of Education (thanks, Reagan) and the welfare safety net, thereby redirecting the poorest segment of society to their only remaining option at that level of education and potential income: the military.

  4. During WWII civilians were made and kept aware of the fact that their country was at war. I have read that many of the “inconveniences” we experienced were not directly a result of the war but instead ways to keep the war alive for those of us at home.

    As a child in San Francisco, I and all children were required to wear identification tags with our names and telephone nos. printed on them every time we left home. Every parent had the responsibility of informing his child’s school if his child was to walk home in case of an air attack or to stay at school.

    We experienced periodic “blackouts” at night as practice for what we were to do in the case of an air attack. For hours we were required to sit in our dark houses, forget the occasional candle, until the all-clear was sounded.

    Rationing covered a gamut of items: gas, butter, sugar, canned goods, meat, tires, bubblegum…no explanation, just live with it.

    Certainly not draconian inconveniences, yet constant reminders that we the people, all the people were engaged in and responsible for a war being fought in our name.

    I must admit that as regards the “wars” we have sent our young off to fight since WWII I have found it impossible to identify an “enemy.” At the same time the complete disconnect between what so many of those on the battlefields are experiencing and those of us at home are experiencing makes we sick. Are they hired killers or are they sacrificial lambs or are they both? I continue to wear a black arm band.

  5. During the Vietnam war one of my stateside military assignments was as an Honor Guard for military funerals. I was a pallbearer for guys from the metropolitian Detroit area who were killed in Vietnam. It was a great experience, although at times it was trying in not letting the display of grief and pain from the family effect the performance of my duty, you had to focus on being detached. I recommend the experience as a form of national service so that more people can get a different perspective on the costs of war. I can’t think of a more effective way to temper the zest for war than hearing the wails of a mother for the loss of her child.

  6. True Blue Liberal has the Herbert piece up on their website. Maha, both you and Rangel are absolutely right about war and sacrifice. One reason that Bush has been able to get away his deceptions is because Americans have not been asked to make any sacrifice. They knew that going in. In addition to the poor and middle class folk having to bear the burden by sending their children off to die, almost all of the war financial cost is been shifted to future generations who I might add will also have to deal with the inevitable blow-back.. as in more Sept 11s, or perhaps China playing hardball over energy supplies. More examples of how George W Bush has made America less safe. The WH was outraged at NBC News today for daring to stray from their talking points on whether or not Iraq is in civil war. The neo cons are fleeing the sinking ship like the bunch of smelly rats that they are. It will be interesting to see to what extent they start exerting influence over the dems in the coming months.

  7. I like the idea, but I doubt that any politician will propose anything like it. Sadly, the cost of this war will be monstrously expensive, but the administration has deferred all the financial cost by borrowing, and concealed the personal cost by (for one thing) prohibiting pics of caskets.

    There is a proposal by Robert A. Heinlein in a novel that the voting franchise should be restricted exclusively to those who have volunteered for and completed service. The service (in this fiction) might be military or other, but no one of sound mind could be refused and the objective of service (for the govt) is to instill a sense of duty; that the unit, the group was more important than the individual. After service, this individual could be trusted to vote in the best interest of society, though he might not agree with other vets.

    IMO, most of the regulars to this blog are capable of voting in the best interests of society. (none of you would always vote my way, but you would vote responsibly.) You have that ethic, or you would not find the blog interesting. Sadly, we are in the vast minority of voters. I do think service COULD be the best way of teaching the voter to look beyond his wallet – or church – or single pet issue and vote for the health of the nation and globe. And it will never happen.

  8. I watch Washington Journal and it really upsets me to hear people who advocate torture, prolonging this war and beating thier chests. I see faces in pictures, hear about things in Iraqi and it makes me want to just cry I hurt so for the people and the soliders.
    Somewhere along the line on the way to Iraq we lost our compassion and humanity. I wish someone would find it so we can be America again.

  9. In the current situation “whether needed or not” gas rationing would help by reducing the amount of money flowing into the Middle East.

    Yes, there is trickle-down that may help the poor over there, but all oil money goes to people who can decide to spend it on bullets before a little of it goes to people who need it to survive. One less tank of gas is one less clip of ammo pointed at our boys (one of them being my own) and girls. Or Iraqui boys and girls.

  10. In principle these are good ideas, especially the automatic war-tax; but only if they coupled with effective ways for the citizenry to bring a war to a swift halt. But absent _effective_ popular brakes on presidential action, this could be abused. By keeping the nation constantly on a war footing, presidents could, by a War Footing Act, militarize society to their benefit.

  11. Pingback: The Mahablog » Tots and Taxes

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