'We won't fight for Exxon'
We cannot blame young people for not wanting to be conscripted in the armed forces or even registered for a draft. But we are concerned about the often superficial reasoning of those now joining antidraft movements on campuses in opposition to President Carter's registration plans. Many comments we hear betray a lack of understanding of the issues involved. Even worse, they sometimes seem to convey an attitude of unwillingness to sacrifice -- even to the extent of minor inconvenience -- for any cause, whatever the stake. An attitude of "myself first and foremost."
When, for instance, a student at Boston University snaps, "I'd fight for America, but I don't want to fight for Exxon," one wonders how deeply he has thought through his response. Safeguarding the Middle East oil supplies is not a favor to the big oil companies. It has to do with the very economic health of the Western world: if that vitality should be threatened because of a cutoff of energy, the West's political systems, too, could be placed in jeopardy. And poorer Americans would be likely to suffer most.
Or take the comment of still another student as reported by the Boston Globe: "I don't think the Russian invasion of Afghanistan was better or worse than the American invasion of Vietnam. The Russian empire acts much the same as the American empire. I don't think either is worth dying for." If this is typical (and we trust it is not), it shows an appalling ignorance of history and of the diametrically opposed natures of the American and Soviet systems -- a failing, we would add, that indicts American institutions of learning.
This is no brief for US involvement in the Vietnam war, or for every policy and strategy pursued by the US Government. These warrant sober public scrutiny, and often strong criticism. But no lump even America's ill-considered efforts to thwart aggression with the Soviet Union's brutal record of subjugation of millions of people in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria -- and now Afghanistan -- is misguided. Misguided and sad. Such a mentality does not comprehend what distinguishes a democracy from totalitarianism, or what America went through to win and keep its freedoms.
Or, to cite one last remark, how about "I want America to thrive and prosper, to be strong, but not in a military sense"? We would be the first to agree that military power without political and economic strength and, above all, firm moral purpose would be futile. But can it seriously be thought the United States could do without a defense? Or, more accurately, without a defense adequate to deterring aggression?
What comes through in such comments is a mental laziness that refuses to face up to issues in all their complexity. This is not to say we are convinced a draft is needed, as many (though not the President) say. But the question youth , indeed all Americans, ought to be addressing is whether the all-volunteer army is meeting the nation's defense requirements and, if not, what can be done about it. Conscription should be considered not merely within the context of a war -- something few foresee at present; it may be dictated by pragmatic peacetime needs, to assure an adequate reserve force, for instance.
It might also be asked: How "just" and "democratic" is it for an army made up in significant part of poorer and less-educated segments of society to shoulder responsibility for the nation's security? Would it, be fairer for all young people to participate? Might not universal participation also assure that the military would notm go off the deep end with foriegn ventures?
In this connection we respect those who refuse service in the military out of genuine conscientious objection, arrived at after searching thought and not as an automatic, unthinking reaction to an unpleasant task. But we share the concerns of many about a present-day tendency to avoid responsibility and self-sacrifice, qualifies without which a nation loses its moral and spiritual mettle. The founding fathers enshrined "the pursuit of happiness" as an unalienable right of all men. But they were also mindful of the obligations, to society and to future generatioins, which must accompany that right. Wrote Thomas Jefferson, "A debt of service is due from every man to his country proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him."
The onus for high-mindedness rests not only with youth, however. their leaders, too, must embody and convey the idealism and righteous goals which justify self-sacrifice. When President Carter couches his Middle East defense "doctrine" merely in terms of securing the country's oil supplies -- and not also of responding to the needs and aspirations of the peoples of the region -- he focuses on the material and loses an opportunity to reaffirm the unique contribution America has made and can continue to make in the world. A true battle cry would be to invoke the nation's revolutionary purpose -- to help struggling peoples everywhere achieve freedom in the fullest sense of the word. Set in such a context, the call for a strong defense and, if it should come to that, youth's participation in it would no doubt meet with at least more thoughtful discourse.