Downtown View:Bring Back the Draft

By Karen Cord Taylor

As you could probably surmise by my name, I’m pretty white. One time at a political convention in Worcester, a man who must have considered himself ethnic compared to me, called me derisively, Karen Lord Taylor. I thought he was pathetic. After all, we were in the same political party, and most of us we were way beyond that.

But with white supremacy types whipping themselves up into a frenzy, thinking they will face few consequences, I wondered why some white people feel they need to be supreme and some white people are comfortable including everyone. I thought about my own family, where I never heard a bad word about any group from any of my relatives.

But my father was especially emphatic. “Everyone is as good as you are,” my father said again and again as we were growing up.

How did he know, and why was it so important to him to convey it?

I’m pretty sure it was because he was drafted in 1942. He went to war and met Americans of every stripe. When he returned home, a natural inclination had grown into a determination. He had finally met people who did not share his heritage but whom he learned to like and count on.

Like many Midwesterners, his ancestors had been in America a long time. He had not traveled much outside his farming community. Migration patterns from New England and the Chesapeake Bay to central Illinois meant that until he went into the Army, he had met almost no one who wasn’t descended from English settlers.

The soldiers he served with must have seemed exotic to him at first. But gradually he must have come to trust them, admire some of them and also realize how like him they were—young, away from home, doing boring jobs punctuated by terrifying moments. He talked about them with fondness and a few times later got in touch with them even though they lived far away.

It wasn’t the war that changed him in that way, although it changed him in other ways. It was the draft that made a difference.

We did away with the draft in the 1970s. At the time we thought that was progress. For one thing, the military during Vietnam was class-ridden. Young men who were in college were exempt, while the others were drafted.

The draft in World War II was different. Everyone except farmers and those working in certain industries, such as aircraft manufacturing, who had  “essential labor exemptions,” had to go. Since my father’s brother could run the farm, my father went.

Thrown together, rich and poor, easterners and westerners, got to know one another. Of course, this scrum was mostly European. At that time, however, sons of Greek, French, English, Scandinavian and Italian families must have seemed exotic to one another. But after serving with people of other ethnic backgrounds for several years, it must have become familiar. African-Americans were not part of the mix, we’ve learned, but that is another story altogether.

One of the saddest parts of the 2016 election was learning that many of our fellow Americans today do not have good will toward those who are not like them. If they had to serve in the military with everyone, would they have more appreciation for others? I’d say it’s a good bet.

A draft now would be different in many ways from the draft in past wars. It would have to be more like national service—in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps as well as the military. Women would be part of it.

With this Congress who is so eager to give every responsibility back to the states so they can do their will without the federal oversight that has reduced discrimination, improved health and made companies more responsible, the idea that they might go for a national service in which everyone participated is laughable.

But when we did away with a draft, there were unintended consequences that may be part of our current problems. That is a lesson to be learned whenever we make a change.

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