Is there a 'moral equivalent' for the draft?

We were trying to explain to a 19-year-old the other day why the President believes that registration for the draft actually makes the draft less likely. "Why?" the 19-year-old asked, getting right to the point. You know how 19 -year-olds are.

"Well," we said, "the President thinks the time has come for a show of strength. It's something that used to be known a couple of wars ago as the nobody-picks-a- fight-with-Joe-Louis theory."

"Who's Joe Louis?" the 19-year-old asked. He was only kidding, we're pretty sure.

"You see," we continued, "if we register our 19-and 20-year-olds, the very act will signal that we're alert, we're prepared."

"Prepared to be prepared," the 19-year-old corrected us.

"Prepared to be prepared," we agreed.

"And if we're prepared to be prepared, we'll never have to be prepared?" he asked -- all innocence. Boy, those 19-year-olds can really look innocent!

"You're getting the idea," we said cautiously, hoping for the best.

"But some day couldn't President Carter use the same logic to draft us?" the 19-year-old asked.

"Run that past again," we requested, now expecting the worst.

"It's simple," the 19-year-old explained. "If registration lessens the chance of the draft, then the draft would lessen the chance of war by the Carter law that one step forward really means two steps back."

"Well, that sounds all right," we admitted.

"All wrong," the 19-year-old snapped, charging out of his ambush at last. "It has never, never been proven that military conscription leads to peace. Quite the contrary. The first great conscriptor was Napoleon. The Prussian Junkers just loved the idea. Hitler and Mussolini could not wait to draft.

"On the other hand, democracies have feared the peacetime draft as a threat to civil liberties. In 1812 Daniel Webster even worried about a wartime draft. 'Is this civil liberty?' he asked. 'The people of this country have not established for themselves such a fabric of despotism.'"

"Are you saying that we have to weigh the external risks against the internal risks?" we asked. We can act pretty innocent ourselves.

"You put that very well," the 19-year-old granted.

"Well, this time it's different," we snapped -- it was our turn to snap. "This time we understand what's at stake. This time we know what we're doing."

The 19-year-old stroked his chin, freshly shaven day before yesterday. "Maybe you're right," he conceded. "But since I'm involved, I want to check out this theory that promises to make me safer by getting me closer. I worry a lot about other people's theories for my safety. In fact, I worry a lot about paradoxes, like that other theory that says fast cars are safer than slow cars because they can accelerate to 90 miles per hour in 12.8 seconds and get out of the way of traffic -- all those slow little cars that are the real menace. Why does that remind me of the President's theory of safety-through- registration?"

"Who knows?" we said -- and by now we meant it.

"According to the Carter doctrine," the 19-year-old continued, "printing up coupon books ought to make gas rationing less likely too."

"Oh, come on!" we said.

The 19-year-old raised a finger and fell to quotation.

"'Whomever a man would naturally hate, he hates a little more, because he has been a soldier.'"

"Really!" we protested. But he wasn't through.

"'Society desperately needs a generation of men of good will, men as free as possible of aggression.' That's from a report prepared over 15 years ago by the American Friends Service Committee."

"What are you trying to say?" we asked.

The 19-year-old shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe that we ought to be very, very careful with our guns and our paradoxes. Now if everybody would move as slowly, as reluctantly toward war as we foot-dragged toward the 'moral equivalent of war' . . . I'd settle for that."

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