By Susan Van Haitsma
If politicians and pundits are discussing, in retrospect, a universal draft as a war deterrent, it would behoove them to check in with today’s prospective draftees to ask what they think about it. In the process, the draft debate might be replaced with a larger question. Instead of older adults arguing about how and which young persons should be used for national defense purposes, the question would be whether adults can figure out how to get along in the world without making the unnatural sacrifice of their young.
The volunteer organization with which I work, Nonmilitary Options for Youth, does regular literature tabling in Austin’s public high schools. While we are there, we ask students what they think about the draft issue, the Iraq war and military recruitment on campus. Last year, we conducted an informal, anonymous written survey on these issues, with approximately 600 students participating across 12 schools. Responses indicated a variety of strong, reasoned opinions, and students seemed to appreciate being asked.
Overwhelmingly, students expressed firm opposition to reinstatement of a military draft. Young people on all sides of the war question stressed the importance of individual freedom of choice. “Someone shouldn’t be forced to die or kill for something they don’t think is right or something they don’t believe in,” was a response that echoed the common sentiment.
Wrote another, “Why reinstate the draft? Because young adults are beginning to realize that they’re not willing to fight for our country anymore. We are sick of hopeless, doomed crusades into all corners of the world.” One student drew a logical conclusion shared by others. “If you must force thousands of people to leave their families and kill for a reason they do not agree with or even understand, that is wrong and a war obviously not worth fighting.”
Whether most high school students know that there are soldiers who likewise are resisting a war they do not agree with or understand, they tend to understand that there are different ways to be drafted. Many students realize that recruiters are targeting them, or they mention a brother, a cousin or an uncle who was recruited. “A poor school is always an opportunity for the military,” wrote one student. Stated another, “I think it’s unfair that they ‘prey’ on minority students like myself because they know we don’t have the money to pay for college.”
Students also notice contradictions in allowing the military onto school campuses. “People complain about violence in school and they let people come in and encourage it. I just don’t get it,” wrote one. Another student added, “I think it’s wrong to try and impress kids with BIG GUNS and SHINY BADGES. Why would anyone want to get respect for murder?”
If most young people are adamantly opposed to universal military conscription, and if some understand the unfairness of the de facto draft we have now, what is the solution?
Students suggest that answers may be found in what schools have taught all along: “I think we should handle things in a nonviolent grown-up way.” “We should be big enough to reach an agreement with our enemies and settle it like civilized human beings.” “I think that people who think war is the best option are completely lazy; there are so many more options!” One student concluded simply, “I believe that the best way to make peace is with peace.”
We older adults could match our fierce devotion to our young with an equally fierce commitment to resolving conflict without using young lives. Creating peace with peace does not include training any young adults to kill. Instead, effective and respectful methods of communication remain key to peacemaking. Students are taught to “use words, not weapons,” and they do so with straightforward eloquence. It wouldn’t be difficult for grown-ups in government to learn to do the same.
Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth in Austin, Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org