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The Dodgers: The Vietnam, er, World War I Problem Revisited

In Spring quarter of 2003 at UCSB, two months after America invaded Iraq, I saw some Quakers at a table by the Rec center advertising options for young men to sign up as conscientious objectors for the draft. I spent a good thirty minutes discussing what I could do, as a pacifist, with them. (They were really incredulous when I talked to them, which made me wonder why they even bothered to set up the table.) I left without officially signing up as a conscientious objector. I didn’t think a draft would occur in the near future; it seemed like plenty of young men were willing to fight.

Like, say, my twin brother, who, during the same Spring Quarter of 2013, approached a table advertising UCLA’s ROTC program, and soon signed up.

I thought about this memory again watching the excellent new play The Dodgers last weekend. (Full disclosure: my girlfriend is Stage Manager for the production. Still, get tickets here!) In the play, a group of draft dodgers on a commune in the sixties deal with the threat of getting drafted, a fictionalized account of playwright Diana Amsterdam’s actual experiences.

There’s no better compliment I can give this play other than this: it inspired an entire post's worth of thoughts.

Military Conscription is Crazy Unethical

In perhaps the most powerful scene in The Dodgers, four eligible, military-age hippies watch as the draft lottery unfolds, hoping their birthdays doesn’t get called. It’s ironic when they realize the draft lottery hasn’t been shuffled properly. It’s tragic when their birthdays do get called.

Oddly enough, despite its brief appearance on the campaign trail--Ted Cruz doesn’t think women should be drafted--the draft feels like a relic, though every young man who turns eighteen in America still has to register with America’s Selective Service System, in case America returns to military conscription.

The Dodgers reminded me of how crazy unethical a draft is. Like truly, epically unethical. I’m not sure how, thousands of years from now, anyone will justify their existence or purpose. It will be seen as another relic of a barbaric age. (To note, every future generation views past generations, or should, as barbaric).

Forcing someone to go to war is a violation of basic liberties. It is a violation of one’s personal agency, both in terms of threatening their safety, but also forcing them to kill. Now, a defender of a draft would argue that drafts serve the greater good by protecting everyone’s agency and safety while solving the inevitable tragedy-of-the-commons problem of going to war. But if a war is so just and noble it must be fought, I have trouble seeing how a country wouldn’t be able to get people to fight in it. (Not to mention the long-held pattern of the rich and powerful getting their children out of the draft, as is mentioned in The Dodgers.)

The subject is too long for a blog post, but I love that The Dodgers brings this issue up again.

Vietnam as the Counter-Argument to the Pacifism Counter-Argument

When you tell people you’re a pacifist, as I am, you invariably get one rebuttal question:

What about World War II?

My first, albeit sarcastic, response is, “What about it?” (World War II is much murkier ethically, than most Americans care to admit.) But my real response is, “What about World I?”. As I wrote in the “World War I Problem”, while the proponents of war love citing the good wars (like World War II) they ignore the bad (like World War I). They ignore the meaningless, strategically dubious-yet-devastating-in-human-terms wars.

I could easily substitute Vietnam for World War I and the argument remains the same. Vietnam was a pointless mess that tortured an entire generation, not to mention killed tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians. In retrospect, I doubt that anyone sees Vietnam as the bulwark against Communism people thought it was at the time. Russia would have almost certainly imploded two decades later regardless, with or without our involvement in Vietnam. Oh, and it was instigated on the basis of a lie. You kind of forget--I mean, I don’t, but the public at large--the stupidity and insanity of the Vietnam war. As we’ve mentioned before, Hollywood stopped making movies about Vietnam twenty years ago.

In our post-9/11 world, America has gone back to war, deploying troops to at least two countries--at least one of which began under false pretenses, again--and dropping bombs in, approximately, hundreds of other countries. We’ve forgotten how bad war can be.

Pacifists Aren’t Cowards

I do have one criticism with the play, and that’s that the main characters mostly focus on fear of dying rather than moral superiority of not fighting in an unjust war. (Not that this is inaccurate; I’m sure many, if not most, drafts dodgers didn’t want to die.)

When I had that conversation with the Quakers above, they pointed out that you can become a conscientious objector but still get drafted as a medic. For anti-war types and pacifists, this is an internal conflict, whether working as a medic saving American soldiers still furthers a war they consider immoral.

For me, it seems like a fair solution, fulfilling a constitutional obligation without violating personal values. I don’t want to go to war, not for fear of dying, but fear of killing. I don’t know what I’d do if I got shot at. I don’t think anyone does. (I assume, since my genetic equal served successfully in war, I probably could as well, but I don’t know.) Even if I were drafted--doubtful now, at my age--I would go, but I wouldn’t kill.