Fears of a new U.S. war in the Middle East surged at the beginning of the year, along with speculation that the government could reinstate the military draft. In this excerpt from his memoir of draft resistance during the Vietnam War, Death Wins All Wars, Daniel Holland discusses the military-industrial complex and the importance of acting on individual conscience. He ends by pointing to a current government commission on increasing military, national, and public service—one that is due to release recommendations in March 2020.
Deep in the cargo holds of ocean-going freighters lurk some of the secrets of global economics. Back in the late 1970s, I worked as a longshoreman in the Port of Milwaukee. Most of our cargo was Food for Peace program milled grain in 50-pound bags, occasionally 50-kilo sacks of flour, and sometimes 55-gallon drums of edible oil. It was physically demanding labor with damn good pay. But from time-to-time there would be cargo I did not care to work, raw cowhides being the first on that list. Hides come cut whole from the animal, folded into a bundle, and cross-tied with twine to provide a handle. They are heavy, smelly, slimy, and often covered with maggots. Because we had a strong union (the International Longshoremen’s Association), we had the option to “check out,” or leave the job at the end of any four-hour shift, provided there were replacements available in the hiring hall, so any time I got stuck on hides, I checked out. Once, when I was leaving a Russian freighter at the noon break knowing I would not return, I passed the ship’s captain on the deck (not an unusual occurrence), and asked him, “What’re you going to do with all these cow hides?” He looked me right in the eye and said, “Make army boots.”
On another bright, sun-shining day, I found myself in the hold of a ship bound for Israel unloading pallets of 105 mm brass artillery shell casings. Just the casings without the charge or the projectile, but still, a sense of the macabre settled on us as we steadily surrounded ourselves with thousands of artillery shells knowing they would be assembled into live weapons upon reaching their destination, then fired at living people in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt. I checked out. I couldn’t stop the shipment from leaving the port. I couldn’t stop the wars that were sure to flare up in the Middle East. All I could do was keep my own handprints off the bombs. A week later we were loading camouflaged fire trucks headed for Egypt. That’s right, American manufacturers were doing business with both sides of the conflict in pursuit of the almighty dollar. No conscience necessary.
Global arms sales in 2016 totaled $374.8 billion, and the U. S. share of the world arms market reached 58 percent. To maintain this level of arms sales requires the weapons be fired after deployment to their respective conflict zones and then replenished. It is also necessary for the weapons be updated, redesigned, and used again. I think this is the very definition of a vicious circle. The managers of today’s war machine, which include the corporate oligarchs whose money controls the politicians, generals, and strategists, have no incentive to eliminate war. Profit is their only incentive.
On April 16, 1953, just three months after he took office and shortly after the death of Joseph Stalin, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his Chance for Peace speech in which he said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” He went on to list in detail all the schools, hospitals, power plants, and highways that would not be built because of the money diverted to military spending. After eight years as president, Eisenhower had been unable to stem the arms race and left office with this dire warning: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” He was right about that.
Would I resist the draft all over again in today’s world? I would in a heartbeat. I remain as convinced as ever that individuals must be responsible for their own actions, by which I mean we do not have the luxury to claim, “I was just following orders.” When we pull the trigger to fire the weapon or when we push the button to launch the missile, we are making an individual choice to commit an act of war. War is a crime against humanity. It is incumbent upon each of us, then, to refuse participation.
Probably there are a few individuals from the resistance who may now regret their past decisions, but many more people who supported the Vietnam War have come to understand the magnitude of their mistake. I remain steadfastly opposed to war. I still believe an essential ingredient for peace is for individual people to make moral choices about how to conduct their own lives rather than leaving those decisions to the government or the generals. The war in Vietnam was finally halted, in part, because millions of people resisted, protested, and demonstrated.
The Vietnam War could never have been fought at the levels it reached without the draft to facilitate its need for bodies. While the volunteer army we have now is one check we possess to prevent our government from waging foreign wars with no real national security threat, this alone is not enough, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown us. The volunteer soldiers of today are forced to serve three and four tours of duty in war zones as recruitment levels decline in the face of these unpopular conflicts, resulting in higher rates of death, injury, and permanent disability. Lack of a draft, some argue, also provides incentive for keeping the minimum wage low, and makes sure that a job in the military is an attractive option for many in our underpaid workforce.
I will never be a brilliant military strategist, I grant you that, but I am capable of perceiving the ineptitude of the military and political strategists who have failed to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan for 18 years and counting. Once again, it is incumbent upon us as individuals to hold the government accountable. Relying on a few days of voting every few years is not sufficient. We must be in the streets and in the faces of the officials elected to represent us, not decide for us.
A standing army may be necessary to defend our country from attack, but spreading our unique brand of militarism across the globe seems to perpetuate the culture of war, not promote the peace. Consider this picture: The United States has over 800 military bases in 70 foreign countries; Russia, France, and Great Britain have a combined 30 foreign military bases; China has one. Our government may think we have every right to declare ourselves the Wyatt Earp of the world and to gun down the bad guys at every O.K. Corral we can find, but the rest of the world may see a blustering bully intent on controlling the flow of natural resources and economic development. Again, to maintain such a high level of military presence throughout the world, the government is going to need bodies, and I think they’ve found a way.
Congress has created The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (with the euphemistic website of Inspire2Serve.gov) “to review the military selective service process and consider ways to increase participation by all Americans in military, national, and public service.” What this commission is trying to say here is that the courts are likely to rule the current selective service system registration requirement unconstitutional because it does not include women even though the military has now opened all military positions, including combat and Special Forces, to women. (A federal district court judge in Texas ruled in February 2019 that the all-male draft is unconstitutional; the case will likely take years to resolve and could well end up before the Supreme Court.) Therefore, the military is going to need a means by which it can force people to serve there and in other professions they deem necessary to national security during any emergency, real or self-created. By conflating “military service” with “national and public service,” the commission seeks, by their own words, the “means to foster a greater attitude and ethos of service among American youth.” I take this to mean a greater acceptance of compulsory service by suggesting you may have some choice in the type of service. I recommend you remain wary of any such gimmick. The goal here will be to compel service in the military, including especially medical positions, or whatever defense industries are critical to any war effort.
While the latest numbers may indicate a significant decline in worldwide war-related deaths, making our current era the most peaceful time in more than a century, the numbers are still too high. Spend a few hours on the internet and you can identify more than 60 countries involved in more than 700 armed conflicts. It will be argued by some that this is our natural condition because Homo sapiens are trapped by genetics in an inescapable determinism we cannot undo while we inexorably hurtle toward our own destruction. They will argue that our technological capabilities to build increasingly more powerful weapons of mass destruction far outpace our ability to control our basest nature. This is essentially an argument for doing nothing to stop the ongoing killing.
But maybe, just maybe, we as individuals can break the cycle by taking individual responsibility. Maybe, just maybe, we will harness our considerable imaginations to create powerful mechanisms for a more equitable, and therefore less combative, world.
This is my call to resist. Go ahead and vote, protest, demonstrate, write letters, and organize, all of which is important work. But do not put your body in their hands to do their bidding for war and profit. One by one, you and I together, we are the paths to peace.
This excerpt from Death Wins All Wars: Resisting the Draft in the 1960s, a Memoir, by Daniel Holland (See Sharp Press 2019) appears by permission of the author and publisher.
Daniel Holland is a lifelong political activist and award-winning poet who has worked as a longshoreman and in many other blue-collar jobs. He is married and lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This is his first book.