LOS ANGELES — Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York says it's hypocritical to "support the war and not support the draft" – to stand for the liberation of a foreign people but not the enslavement of one's own.
Quite the verbal acrobat at age 76, Mr. Rangel, the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, proposed this month a revival of conscription for all men and women between the ages of 18 and 42, in part to sabotage the Iraq war and coerce a withdrawal.
Though his bill has little hope of making the books, Rangel has pinched a national nerve. And though his grandstanding ploy is deeply flawed and divorced from the American heritage, it is also a timely reminder of a thinning American military and the crisis of American confidence it suggests.
"[Had] members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm's way," they would have rejected the war, Rangel says. But in the same breath, ostensibly to make the idea more palatable, he admits that draftees could opt out of the bloody streets and register at "our seaports, our airports, in schools, [and] in hospitals" instead.
So, had Bush's daughters been forced to read Dr. Seuss to kindergartners, maybe their father wouldn't have been so quick to the trigger. That logic seems suddenly less glamorous – indeed, almost tragic – considering that both women are already meeting the draft's standards; Jenna Bush is an intern at UNICEF and Barbara Bush volunteers with African AIDS patients.
But even if the draft forced old Washington's young aristocrats to share symbolically in a national burden, it would relieve their warmongering parents of an even heavier burden: the job to prove and advocate a case for war. If wars are manufactured by rich white men, then an all-volunteer force at least gives poor black men the choice not to buy in.
In spite of its intents, the draft would exempt the hawks among the administration from public accountability. Instead of being a check on the conscience of policymakers, the draft will remove every public obstacle from, and grant every public resource to, the cause of war.
Yet Rangel, so enchanted with his proposal, has attempted to pass off contradiction as nuance, arguing that the draft serves not only to undermine America's war but also – watch his high-flying backflip – to ensure that the wars are successful as well. "If we're going to challenge Iran and challenge North Korea and then, as some people have asked, to send more troops to Iraq, we can't do that without a draft," Rangel said. Far from orienting America's heart to surrender, Rangel is here bracing its stomach for victory in the war against terrorism. It is a welcome display of machismo that says, "America's going to win, by any means necessary."
Rangel's formulation is strangely well-matched with the stiff sensibilities of the macho military types, whose Protestant "America, right or wrong" patriotism enshrines faith over deed, country over idea – and, most dangerously, perhaps, country in spite of idea.
In a debate with Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, Gen. William Westmoreland, opposing an all-volunteer military, argued that he could not command "an army of mercenaries." Mr. Friedman responded swiftly: "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?"
The great economist had foreshadowed the moral meaning of a practical calculation. Do the means we use contaminate the ends we seek?
Before the West began to trade crowns for ballot boxes in the 18th century, wars were the projects of kings aimed at power and executed by slaves and subjects. The United States helped redefine war as the final expression of necessity, not the first instinct of greed. It did this, in part, by tying the gory enterprise to the destiny of its people. Wars would be fought only when citizens felt that the cause was worth dying for. America has rightly trumpeted its role as the pioneer and ongoing press release of that experiment.
If there are not enough people to fight the coming American wars – and they are coming – on these terms, there are two potential explanations: one, the wars are not worth fighting; or two, America will no longer fight wars worth fighting.
Rangel's proposition assumes – and it is not the only indicator – that the second is true, that America is enveloped in a crisis of conscience and confidence, that in the face of a mortal enemy, America prefers sigh to skirmish.
But what amounts to a spiritual emergency eludes a physical cure. To force men and women into uniforms is merely to postpone a solution with the hope that the problem won't get worse. It will; in post-1960s America, the draft may well turn a problem of low morale into American troops actually standing down.
The healing of America's soul must start in the cabs and cornfields. But the government can help by refurbishing hope in its citizens through a new era of good feelings. Or – let's not kid ourselves – a few months of benign neglect.
• Garin K. Hovannisian is the editor of UCLA's journal of opinion and culture, www.BruinStandard.com.