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By Aubrey W. Bonnett, PhD

On January 10, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed orders directing 35,000 more soldiers to the Persian Gulf, even as the nation prepares to celebrate the national holiday of the man of peace, Martin Luther King. Both events fall against the backdrop of a bill introduced by Representative Charles Rangel on January 7th, which would reinstate the military draft to ensure, states Rangel, that the fighting forces should more closely reflect the economic makeup of the nation.

All these events somehow had a nostalgic ring and brought back, with a mighty force, many emotions and controversies: war, peace, patriotism, dissent, the emasculation of social programs, and the fairness of any conflict that would disproportionately call upon the lowest segments to bear most of the pain and sacrifices involved in armed conflict.

First, let me hasten to state that I am no pacifist and that I am firm believer in the positive and uplifting benefits that the armed forces of the United States have bestowed on many Americans, especially its minority citizens and immigrants. As a former college dean at a campus in the California State University system, the ROTC programs – army, air force and marines- reported to me, and I was able to see, first hand, how over 70 percent of our nation’s officers are trained and the mutual benefits of having them on a university campus, interacting with their college peers and being influenced by university and military instructors alike. Indeed where would my hero and the great American, Caribbean American, be now had it not been for CCNY’s ROTC program that took an average (c) student and molded him with the necessary traits which later would transform him into a national hero, statesman and treasure. He is a true testimonial to the immigrant and American dream.

Some would argue that the armed forces, especially after President Truman’ s executive order banning segregation, and essentially in the last twenty-five years, have had more of a salutary and emancipatory effect on immigrants and minority citizens than have the other institutions in civil society. Without a doubt. And therein lies the rub, for while the military provides these opportunities, the voluntary army has a disproportionate percent of its members (approximately thirty per cent) who are minorities, and an equally larger number drawn from the lower socio-economic groups in our society.

And so it seems that citizens, who are excluded from participating effectively in the other social institutions because of earlier, varied social problems, are destined to find a livelihood in the military because their other options are limited. Noted social critic and commentator, Michael Eric Dyson, had observed earlier in relation to the Gulf War, “That the racial condition is sufficiently desperate to funnel thousands of black youth into the volunteer armed forces is a stinging indictment of the persistent lack of opportunities that haunts the lives of millions of black and brown youth.” In this regard Rangel’s bill attempts to adjust this situation and would apply the draft to all men and women between the ages of 18 to 26. Exemptions would be granted to allow graduation from high school, but college students would have to serve and those citizens with impairments would be asked to provide community service. To the supporters of the voluntary army and those who argue that the poor fight better, the Congressman and Korean veteran states that the rich should also be given a chance, for he continues…”I truly believe that those who make the decision and those who support the United States going into war would feel more readily the pain that’s involved, the sacrifice that’s involved, if they thought that the fighting force would include the affluent and those who historically have avoided this great responsibility”. Rangel’s call for equality of sacrifice and for a fuller sharing of patriotic duty has a compelling and egalitarian ring, for we know that many among the economic and social elite and the upper classes- including some former Presidents, current and past cabinet members and high ranking members of congress- have traditionally avoided the rigors of service in war and its chance of paying the “ultimate sacrifice” for the nation.

I would contend, however, that there are other ways of being a drum major for justice and extending the equality of shared patriotism, and that is by having a form of compulsory national service that is not limited to the military sector but includes the civilian sectors as well: serving our aged, infirm, young, our destitute, those at risk “criminally”, and those citizens in nations in which we are trying to ignite fledging democratic values and widespread civic participation.

Varied forms of this model have been tried in developed and developing societies alike, and particularly in Guyana under the late President Forbes Burnham, with mixed to positive results with regard to the building of a greater understanding, if not respect, for the heterogeneity which exist in diverse societies, especially pluralistic ones. Such endeavors also force the members of the elite and upper middle classes to get a direct, not vicarious, appreciation of the debilitating effects of poverty, as well as racial/ ethnic, gender and other social inequalities.

Of course, Rangel’s thrust at community service for those who do not qualify for military service is commendable and parallels the former conscientious objector (CO) category in the selective service legislation. But I believe that a comprehensive form of national service that is innovatively designed would serve the nation well as we change demographically with new, and in some instances, continuing deepening areas of de facto racial and economic segregation in our cities and counties. Our pacifist, Martin, would be hard put to avoid adding his support to a national thrust of this sort even as he weighed in against the evils of war and the inherent competing imperative of a “guns versus butter” social policy that always results in skewed and diminished opportunities for social programs in favor of massive military expenditures.

At many of our educational institutions of higher learning, state and private, the kernel of many such programs already exists, at times funded by philanthropic grants from our NGO’s –the Ford, Kellogg and Rockefeller foundations, for example, and aided by the Peace Corps, Teach America and other such governmental efforts. In this endeavor this nation would again be focused on its other directed, altruistic nature and its contribution and development of a culture that teaches us to live ethical lives, that are full of integrity, compassionate and moved to positive action for the poor and less needy within and outside our borders.

Just last week I was conversing with a friend, now enjoying retirement, as we wildly conjectured whether a dream ticket of Bush /Powell in 2004 would truly, again, emancipate a nation that some argue is losing its moral bearings, and would force us to challenge long held ideas and assumptions about the efficacy of race, class, ethnicity and gender as they affect our sense of national identity, (who we are), and the concomitant power arrangements that flow from such. We could not agree, but what was interesting was that my friend proudly extolled the benefits of the military institution as he recited the successes and accomplishments of a young male brigadier general in his early forties and an even younger female fighter pilot, both service academy trained and second generation Caribbean (Guyanese) Americans, who were doing their country proud as they performed “national” service and put their lives in harm’s way. Clearly his vision of service, while commendable, was limited in scope.

Let us hope that as we continue to define patriotism and service for country we extend our parameters to include the teacher serving in an inner city, under performing urban school or on a reservation, often in combat like situations; the nurse tending to our infirm and mentally deranged in our health institutions; and the peace corps worker often in remote locations with no vast support mechanism but faith in the transformative power of community service to save lives and renew hope, as some other examples of worthwhile, even heroic, patriots.

These are frightening times for most Americans: our national economy is still anemic in its recovery; the states are awash in “red ink” and debt and forced to make tough choices which will increase unemployment, suffering, discontent and social disorganization; and an incipient mood of national xenophobia and a tolerance of encroachments to our civil rights seem to be growing. And so as President Bush hurtles to involve us in a diversionary war for Oil, which will in no iota lower the threat of terrorism on our shores and abroad, or increase the chances for peace in the middle east or elsewhere, let us remember the legacy of our late patriot Martin Luther King in this month of January.

Against a backdrop of vicious and intense criticism from friends and enemies both, King’s criticism of the war in Vietnam was relentless, for he saw it as not only morally unjust, but also detracting from the fight for racial and economic justice at home. These sentiments ring prophetic and relevant in these times. Dyson summed it up in this way, “If King’s antiwar activism led to his being branded a renegade and a traitor, his move to wrestle the demons of economic inequality and social class was even more unsettling. King believed that our nation’s problems grew from the triplets of social misery: racism, militarism and poverty.”

Our nation has made steady progress on many fronts since King’s untimely assassination, but our problems are still formidable and his depiction of our social misery index still incisive and true. As noted, I am no pacifist, but the case for this “just war” has not been made. Let us give peace a chance and instead redouble our efforts at home and abroad to fight the scourges of poverty, racial and ethnic injustice and social inequality, especially in these troubling times.



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