Johann Hari: Bring back conscription (even for me)

Would MPs have backed the war if they had known their kids would end up on the streets of Mosul?

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There is a surreal disconnection between the war Out There and the calm Back Here. As it waits for another of George Bush's futile "surges", Baghdad is melting ever faster into a sectarian Chernobyl. My friends there say that every street is being turned into an ad hoc fortress, with barricades at each end manned by impromptu militias to keep out the sectarian death-squads as best they can. One friend - a rational graduate of science from Oxford University - is muttering about the End of Days. British boys and girls are staggering through a similar implosion in the south of the country - but have we noticed?

The troops in Iraq are stuck in a paradox. A majority of the British people (62 per cent) want to bring the troops home now. A majority of the troops (72 per cent) - if they are like the recently polled American soldiers - want to come home now. And a majority of the Iraqi people (78 per cent) want the troops to go home now. So the unwilling are occupying the unwilling on behalf of the unwilling - in the putative name of democracy.

Why? When we in Britain are asked by opinion pollsters which issues we consider to be a priority for us, the war doesn't even feature. To most of us, if we are honest, Iraq is a depressing two-minute item on the news and nothing more. Perhaps when a new strain of psycho-fundamentalism flickers into the news - as it did yesterday in Birmingham - we wonder about a possible connection. But we know it is complex, and it soon fades. The war in Iraq continues because it doesn't matter enough to us to stop it.

Representative Charlie Rangel, a congressman for New York, has been proposing a way to make it matter. You won't like it - I don't, but I am finding it very hard to give a convincing counter-argument. Before I outline his case, I should explain that Mr Rangel is one of the most liberal members of the US Congress. He is an African-American who grew up in poverty-sunk Harlem. His mother was a maid, his father did a runner. He has been one of the most indefatigable opponents of the Reagan-Bush assault on the American poor. He opposed Vietnam. He opposed Iraq.

And his solution? Reintroduce the draft. Enter the name of every citizen between the ages of 18 and 30 - male or female, gay or straight, no exceptions - into a ballot, and make the people who "win" enter the military. I can hear your splutters; I made them myself. I just turned 28. How, I cursed, can a liberal advocate an authortiarian Nam-flashback? Mr Rangel recently explained on CBS's Face the Nation: "There is no question in my mind that this President and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if members of Congress and the administration thought their kids would be placed in harm's way."

The liberal case for the draft boils down to two arguments. First off, a draft would change the attitude towards war back home: we would need a lot more persuasion to allow a war to be launched, and we would follow its course much more carefully. Most of us place so little importance on the war because we don't know anybody who is fighting it. Speak to military mothers, and they know the map of Basra better than the Tube map; but how many of us can even picture it? It's hard to sympathise with abstract people, no matter how nice you are. The people fighting the war are overwhelmingly black, brown or poor. Most of us are not.

Mr Rangel points out that the US - and, by extension, Britain - has a form of economic conscription. The poorest kids join the army, because they have very few other options; for many, the road to university runs through Fallujah. For example, in 1956, 400 out of 750 Princteon graduates went on to serve in the military. Last year, out of 1000 graduates, three - that's three - did so. Black Americans make up 12 per cent of the population, but 26 per cent of the US Army. It's hard to find the hard figures for the British Army, but the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru recently revealed that, while schools in the economically withered Valleys area had received 10 visits on average from army recruiters, those in the wealthier Vale of Glamorgan had not received any visits.

What if the Army was made up of a genuine cross-section of classes and professions? Picture it. Would enough MPs have walked through the lobbies to back the war if they had known their kids would end up on the streets of Mosul facing a slew of suicide-bombers? Would I have (stupidly) supported the war if there was a chance I would have ended up patrolling Basra with a machine-gun? Honestly? Professor Charles Moskos, a former draftee, takes this further, arguing: "I suggest we start drafting at the top of the social ladder. Who better to serve a short term for their country than those benefitting most from living here? When the children of our nation's elite perform military service for their country, our national interests will be taken much more seriously."

Conscription would, paradoxically, reduce war. Richard Nixon sensed that. He decided in 1972 the best way to "cripple anti-war movements" was an all-volunteer army. He was right. It's why the former Nixonian stage-hand Donald Rumsfeld told Congress in June 2005: "There isn't a chance in the world that the draft will be brought back."

He knows, too, the second liberal argument for the draft: a conscript army fights wars differently. One of the great forgotten stories of Vietnam is that, placed in an immoral war, the conscript troops rebelled en masse. It began in 1969, when an entire company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade sat down on the battlefield and refused to fight.

By 1971, the US Armed Forces Journal wrote: "Our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers, and dispirited where not near-mutinous... Conditions [exist] among armed forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by... the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917."

If we had conscripts patrolling Iraq, there would be a similar mass rebellion. This is another example of how the draft requires politicians to provide overwhelming and on-going justification for wars - or end them - rather than the babble we hear today on the subject from Bush and Blair. So, even as I find his argument terrifying, I must admit Mr Rangel is right. If a war is worth fighting, it is worth fighting with everybody's children. And if it's not worth fighting - like the barely supervised collapse in Iraq - then nobody's child should die in its futile name.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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