In the late 1960s, there was a famous slogan that emerged during the Vietnam War: What if they gave a war and no one came? The slogan underscores the point that although political leaders start wars and the military/industrial complex profits from them, wars would not be possible if young men and women refused to volunteer for military service, or in the case of the Vietnam War, allow themselves to be drafted.
This became even more evident last month when Dick Cheney was asked how he felt about the fact that so far 4,000 soldiers had been killed in Iraq. With signature sneer, he simply dismissed the number by saying that everyone who was in the military signed up voluntarily. In other words, “Hey, don’t blame me– I didn’t tell the dumb bastards to sign up! When I was their age, I had other priorities!”
Naturally, critics of the vice president used this exchange to illustrate once again what a heartless son-of-a-bitch he is. No disagreement there, but the fact remains that if Americans didn’t volunteer for duty, the occupation of Iraq would have to end.
Current figures show that Americans are volunteering for military service in fewer numbers than in the past, but they are still volunteering. Most of them sign up because they are poor or uninformed and are lured by the educational and financial benefits from serving in the military. But some of them sign up because they have a family history of military service or feel the need to be patriotic.
Case in point: Tomas Young, a 25-year-old from a military family in Missouri who voluntarily signed up for the army after 9/11 because he thought it was the patriotic thing to do. Shortly after he enlisted, he was shot in the chest while on patrol in Iraq and became paralyzed from the chest down.
Now resigned to a wheel chair, Young is no longer the pro-military patriot he once was. In fact, he is the subject of a new anti-war documentary called Body of War, co-directed by former talk show host Phil Donahue and indie filmmaker Ellen Spiro. In the emotionally-charged film, Young allows Donahue and Spiro to follow him around and record the most intimate details of his life as he crosses America attending and speaking at anti-war rallies and protests.
Of course Tomas Young’s story of a patriotic soldier’s conversion to an anti-war activist is not new. In some ways it is chillingly reminiscent of Ron Kovic’s memoir/film, Born on the Fourth of July, about a patriotic young Kovic who went to Vietnam and came back an emotionally and psychologically disturbed paraplegic who went on a personal crusade to protest against the Vietnam War.
What makes Young’s story different than Kovic’s, however– and absolutely flabbergasting to me– is the revelation in the documentary that Tomas Young’s younger brother, who witnessed first-hand how his older brother Tomas had become disabled and how he had transformed into an anti-war activist, still decided to volunteer for military service and go to Iraq, even in light of all the information about how the invasion was based on lies and deception by the Bush administration. What was this kid thinking? If this were fiction and not a true story, it would be absolutely unbelievable.
Nevertheless, we all wish this young man well and hope he returns home safe and sound, but isn’t it time for young men and women to start wising up? I can understand patriotic young individuals volunteering for military duty right after 9/11, or even one or two years into the Iraq occupation. But by this time, even the most naive young men and women should realize there’s nothing heroic or macho or patriotic about fighting in an unnecessary war sold to the public by a bunch of lying neocon chicken hawks like Bush and Cheney.
Isn’t it time for them to say, “Hell, no! We won’t go!” And isn’t it time for our political and business leaders to give poor and uninformed kids other options besides going into the military to pay for school and get ahead financially? Are you listening Hillary and Barack? How about you, Bill Gates and George Soros and Warren Buffet? If you really want to do some good, how about using your billions to create “peace grants and anti-war scholarships” for low-income kids so that they can continue their educations or learn trades without having to sign up to kill or be killed in Iraq!
And what about the rest of us?
Perhaps it’s time to reframe the argument about Iraq from “I don’t support the war, but I support the troops” to “I don’t support the occupation, and I can no longer support the young men and women who volunteer to go to Iraq.”
If this strategy works, then perhaps the next time around our political leaders will think twice before getting us into another unnecessary war based on lies and deception. And if someday in the future, if America really is under attack and a war is necessary, I don’t think it will be difficult to quickly institute a draft and get patriotic Americans to sign up for military service, just as they did in World War II.