Sandy Ross listened to George W. Bush’s Jan. 10 address to the nation in disbelief. The president, in a move that simultaneously disregarded the will of the majority of Americans and brushed aside the Iraq Study Group’s call for a phased troop withdrawal, announced he would escalate the war effort by sending an additional 21,500 soldiers into Iraq to try to quell an out-of-control insurgency.
“When I heard him talk of troop buildup, I said, ‘I find it very difficult to see how they’re going to avoid having a draft,’” Sandy, a conscientious objector (CO) since the Vietnam War, recalls telling his 16-year-old son Owen.
“Where is the manpower going to come from?”
Earlier that same day Montana Sen. Max Baucus—whose nephew, Marine Corporal Phillip Baucus, was killed in Iraq last summer—gave a stirring speech on the Senate floor in which he called on Bush to bring the troops home.
“I know what it’s like to wait on the flight line at Dover Air Force Base. I know what it’s like to greet the body of a fallen soldier and family member,” Baucus said.
The following day Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., introduced a bill to reinstate the military draft, suggesting that if more Americans, including members of Congress, were faced with the reality now facing the Baucus family, it might bring a speedy end to the U.S. war in Iraq.
“It is my belief that if Americans are to be placed in harm’s way, all of us, from every income group and position in society, must share the burden of war,” Rangel said in a written statement.
Reinstatement of the draft is unlikely due to its political unpopularity and the U.S. military’s insistence on a volunteer army, but the thinnest possibility of forced military service has Sandy and Owen thinking and talking about what it means to be a conscientious objector.
Sandy comes from a family with long ties to war—and objection to it. Two of his uncles served prison time in England for objecting to World Wars I and II. Sandy’s father worked on civil defense projects for Colgate-Palmolive laboratories during the Second World War. In 1965, as the United States waded deeper into Vietnam and he came of draft age, Sandy, now a chemistry professor at the University of Montana, refused to take the Selective Service exam on the basis that he believed it was biased toward people skilled in the sciences. He was eventually drafted and he declared himself a CO. The draft board classified him 1-O, a classification given to those who sincerely object to any kind of warfare. Instead of serving in the military, Sandy was assigned to two years of civil service at a Quaker school in Iowa.
Sandy has never been shy about his CO status, and as his uncles had done with him a generation earlier, he talks freely about his objection to war with his son.
“I’d sit down and talk to him about why the war bothered me and why some of us took the stands that we did, but I didn’t make any judgments,” Sandy explains. “His grandfather on his mother’s side was in the Seabees in the Second World War, disarming bombs in tunnels and doing beach landings, so he had heard that side of it as well.”
The United States did away with conscription in 1973, but the memory of the Vietnam War-era draft remains fresh in the minds of Baby Boomers like Sandy. He agrees with Rangel that mandatory military or civil service might force Americans to think more carefully about entering into armed conflicts, but Owen, who will have to register with the Selective Service in two years, isn’t convinced that conscription is an appropriate national policy.
“On the one hand, I see it being a tool that could bring this conflict to a close, but on the other hand, I’m not sure that’s really an ethically and morally sound mechanism for holding our leaders accountable,” he says.
Owen says he objects to the war in Iraq, and if the day ever comes that he is called to serve in the military, he will follow in his father’s footsteps and file as a CO.
“Violence in policy just escalates violence and puts you right in the line of some other conflict down the road,” Owen says.
Whereas Sandy’s generation was faced with the reality of an ongoing conscription policy designed to round up manpower for overseas warfare, Owen’s generation lives in a world where the idea of the draft exists primarily as a political pry bar designed to force change in U.S. war policy.
Nevertheless, Owen’s concerns about the war and the possibility of a draft led him to take an interest in the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers. Though not a Quaker himself, Sandy had attended a Quaker high school, so he approved of his son’s curiosity in the pacifist religion. For nearly a year they attended weekly Quaker meetings together, but Owen says he eventually realized he wasn’t finding satisfaction in the silent meditation of those meetings.
“I found it disingenuous to someone’s religion to go to the meetings just to prove that you object to war,” Owen says.
Sandy says he’s proud that his son is pursuing answers to his own philosophical questions about war and pacifism. And while the two have widely different generational perspectives, both believe that America’s leaders need to take a closer look at the true costs of this particular war before it escalates to the point where the draft shifts from being a mere political football into a national necessity.