Ludlow Amendment, the Draft, and a culture of war

I’m reading the somewhat disappointing book Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989 by Michael Beschloss. I’ll have to do a complete review, but in brief, the disappointing part is that in most episodes, I get to the end and think “Oh, it’s over.” Somehow it reads a bit like a core dump and the storytelling could be much more compelling. That said, there are interesting tidbits here and there, such as a brief discussion (a couple of sentences) regarding the Ludlow Amendment, which would have dramatically changed the way the US went to war.

In brief, the Ludlow Amendment was a constitutional amendment introduced several times between 1935 and 1940 by Louis Ludlow, a Democrat from Indiana. He proposed that the constitution be amended to say that the neither the president nor the Congress be allowed to take the United States to war. Rather, for the US to go to war, the government would have to hold a referendum and get a majority vote. There was a provision for our elected leaders to take us to war if we were directly “attacked” (in the Democratic version, “invaded” in the Progressive version). Public support for such an amendment was high, running at 75% in 1935. It was endorsed by such radical outlets as Good Housekeeping magazine.

The “attack” provision meant that the amendment ultimately would not have come into play in WWII or perhaps even in Vietnam (despite the fact that the Gulf of Tonkin attacks were entirely fabricated, they probably would have been used to circumvent the amendment). Korea would have been a more difficult proposition. The war in Afghanistan would of course have been justified by virtue of the September 11 attacks.

There are, of course, obvious problems with such a process for entering war. Namely, the jingoism and idiocy of large portions of the population makes it possible for demagogues to manoeuvre a nation into war by manipulating public opinion. Given the widespread support for going to war with Iraq, perhaps the Ludlow Amendment would have made no difference. Perhaps we would be going to war all over the place. But I do wonder whether the act of voting would make people more thoughtful and would have required a more judicious investigation of the intelligence. Perhaps that’s unrealistic, especially in a nation of brain-dead rednecks driving around with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks (as we recently noticed while driving from coast to coast).

In addition, in the current climate, for the Ludlow Amendment to have a hope of being useful, the United States would need to return to a non-volunteer, conscripted military. When Ross Perot was campaigning during the Gulf War, he asked every assembly of businessmen he spoke to whether or not they had any children serving in the Gulf. In speaking to thousands and thousands of businesspeople over several months, he saw only two hands go up. In short, wealthy and educated businesspeople in America simply no longer have children who are likely to be risking their lives when our country goes to war.

Meanwhile, in 1940, when Roosevelt was preparing for war and Ludlow was still trying to make it more difficult for him to do so, Joseph Kennedy, father of the future president, was ambassador to Great Britain. Kennedy opposed going to war because even as an ambassador, he feared for the lives of his three eldest sons, Joe, Jack and Bobby, all of whom were or soon would be eligible to serve and who could not be shielded by privilege (Bobby was only 15 in 1940). Of course, Joe Kennedy, the eldest brother, did die in the war. John came very close when his PT boat was sunk.

In absence of a universal draft, we effectively end up with a mercenary army that is easy to send to war since the wealthy and powerful have no personal stake in the war. The difference between a universal draft on the one hand and either a draft with many exceptions or no draft at all on the other is neatly illustrated by the two George Bushes: the wealthy and privileged father who was shot down and almost died in combat in the Pacific, and the wealthy and privileged son who used a combination of deferements and special treatments to get into the National Guard and then not even show up for duty. If we had a universal draft, I wonder how many Senators with draft age children or grandchildren would have blindly voted to approve the administration’s military adventurism in Iraq.

Then there is another way in which the volunteer army makes it easier to go to way. Personally, I was in the first cohort of males in the post-draft era who were required to register for a draft and it looked like Reagan might well push to reinstitute the draft and send us to war in Central America. When it became clear, though, that Reagan would rattle his swords without ever requiring a draft, it also became clear that the venues for protest were much more limited and the impetus to do so was too. Whereas I could have protested the Vietnam War simply by refusing to report, no such option exists in the world of an all volunteer army.

For those who don’t know much about the work of Machiavelli beyond the name, Machiavelli is usually associated with despotic politics of The Prince but in fact he was a staunch republican (that is a believer in republics rather than, for example, monarchies), much better represented by the Discourses of his earlier life before trying to suck up to the Medici. In the Discourses, Machiavelli speaks of the risks of depending on a mercenary army. Namely, the non-citizen army does not have a vested interest in preserving the republic, because it’s ultimately not their country. We currently have the reverse situation: the non-military citizenry has no vested interest in preserving the lives of soldiers, because most people in most places don’t actually have family or close friends who are put in harm’s way. That’s bad for the cause of peace, but if we remain a country that invades countries at the drop of the hat, with a mercenary army, one can well imagine that after a century of that activity, the republic itself will be in danger as the military sees itself increasingly as separate from the citizenry and, more to the point, as the less-privileged who give their lives for the more-privileged. No society can survive forever if those who wield the raw power of firearms are so separate from those who wield the abstract power of, politics, economy and finance. One can well imagine that after enough disastrous Iraq wars, the military might decide that in order to save itself, it needs to overthrow George Bush. And as much as I would rather have seen President Powell rather than President Bush, I really don’t want to see generals work their way into the White House in a coup d’etat.

Of course, like the Ludlow Amendment, there are lots of problems with a universal draft. It makes for an extremely expensive, inefficient and poorly trained army, as the Swiss have discovered. Constant referenda on all sorts of topics can also lead to a bit of democracy burnout, where people get resentful of voting all the time as, again, the Swiss can attest. That said, it is worth remembering that when the Swiss armies were largely mercenary units built of local citizens, it was one of the most warlike countries in the world, incurring huge losses by sending its citizens into foreign wars. Now, as a nation with constant referenda, a constitution that prevents it from going to war unless attacked, and an army that requires every male to serve, they have not exactly become an interventionist country. And yes, I realize that the situations are not comparable and that conclusion is absurd, but then so is the reality we are dealing with right now.

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