September 3, 2004

Commentary:

“Some Bodies That Matter: The Impending Draft as a Moral Crisis for White People”

by Tamara K. Nopper

Lately there have been talks about an impending draft that would force people to serve in the US military and its “war on terror.” With two bills—the H.R.163 and S.89 sponsored by Representative Charles Rangel and Senator Ernest Hollings, respectively—being debated, folks have been scrambling to get their kids conscientious objector (CO) status. Given that if either bill passes, women and college students would be “draftable,” there appears to be a particular urgency to resisting the draft.

But which draft are people talking about? There has been a draft going on in this country for a while, one that has been successful in maintaining military enlistment despite the progressive critique of war and militarization. This is the “poverty draft,” the draft that posits the military as one of the few options for people to get their basic needs met or lures people with the promise of $50,000 in college money or job training. That many people—57%—never get a dime of tuition money and that many job skills learned in the military are not transferable to the civilian sector tends to go under the radar of many who are now currently concerned about “the draft.” As counter-military recruitment activist Mario Hardy Ramirez points out, the poverty draft has been more successful in getting people of color, particularly Blacks, in the military than any forced draft has.

This might explain why, when I answer phone calls at the counter-military recruitment and peace organization I volunteer at, parents concerned about a draft tend to be white and, from what it sounds like, middle-class. They ask for information on how to get their kids CO status, sometimes wondering if I can refer them to a lawyer to help out with their kid’s paperwork. At times they want lawyers to do all of the work for them, and are willing to shell out the money so that their daily routines are not interrupted as their kid obtains CO status. Some parents and even grandparents are looking into CO status for a young person who is in their pre-teens or even three years old.

While non-whites have historically opposed war and forced military enlistment and are actively doing so today, the concerns of people of color tend to differ dramatically from the scenarios just given. When I talk to people of color about military enlistment, whether over the phone or in person, they are usually talking about someone they know already in the military who went because they couldn’t get a job or they were broke or they had people to provide for. Or I have parents talking about how they want to provide their kids with college money but couldn’t so their children enlisted. Or some parents tell me how their kids feel it is necessary to go into the military to “prove” they deserve to exist or be here, notions often couched in highly nationalistic or gendered/sexual terms of being a “real American” or a “real man” or a “strong woman.” Or parents tell me about how their child went into the military against their wishes but may have been enticed by a school counselor or a military recruiter who is omnipresent in their kid’s school, neighborhood and hang-outs.

Many people of color, then, are not talking about the impending draft, but are talking about the poverty draft, one that poses to people, particularly people of color and even more specifically Blacks, that the military is the only option to get out of their situations. And the US military does this through a series of tricks and an annual budget of at least 2.7 billion just for recruitment alone, which is funneled into various “youth-friendly” packages such as hip hop material, video games and phone cards. The US also romanticizes or downplays the devastation it’s responsible for in non-white communities. In the US alone, the military has been a major force in maintaining slavery and suppressing slave rebellions, taking over indigenous lands and bodies in the Americas, suppressing and incarcerating Black and Brown bodies during the LA Riots, or helping in the incarceration of almost 2.2 million people, half of them Black. Basically, non-whites, particularly Blacks, then, are forced to pledge loyalty to or work for a military system that has shaped contemporary situations they find themselves trying to deal with.

And yet, despite the way liberals want to slice it, these contemporary situations are not a “people of color situation” one that can somehow be divorced from the reality of whiteness and white bodies. That is, the anxiety of whites who fear an impending draft can not be understood unless we look at the situation as one in which, to the “general public,” some bodies matter more than others. Implicit in this privileging of certain bodies are racist/sexist assumptions about other bodies. If one pays attention to public discourse, laws and public policies, military strategies and sociological interpretations, it is the non-white body that, for different reasons depending on their race, is treated as not human, one that can somehow handle a lot of violence, pain and suffering, or has some ethereal power that is so beyond the human world that violence doesn’t affect it.

In a white supremacist world, then, it is only white bodies that can experience human levels of pain and suffering. Basically, it is only white bodies that matter.

Thus, for whites, the draft poses a potential moral crisis, one that speaks to the possibility that more white bodies might have to experience the violence, pain and death that communities of color, particularly Blacks, have experienced through the military—whether enlisted or not. And the possibility that two sympathetic types, the white woman and the white college student, may be more at risk of experiencing violence and may not live to fulfill their manifest destiny as good citizens is also informing the current moral crisis for whites.

Basically, the draft poses a moral crisis that is blind to the fact that non-white bodies have been shouldering the burden of war, militarization and anxiety about military enlistment for centuries. It is a moral crisis that neglects the fact that white women make up about only 13% of all white people who are active enlisted members in the military, whereas the percentages of women in their respective racial groups are higher, with Black women making up almost 25% of all Black people who are actively enlisted. And it is a moral crisis because what served as the safeguard for many white people during the Vietnam War, the university, may no longer be able to serve that function in the capacity it once did.

Overall, then, what the current anxiety about the draft demonstrates is that some bodies matter, and unfortunately for the majority of the world, it is white bodies that matter the most. Thus, the current talk about the draft reflects a moral crisis for white people, one in which they are frightened by the possibility that they might have to experience some of the violence, pain and death that people of color, and in particular Blacks, have been experiencing for a while. This is what we saw during the Vietnam War, a war in which whites began to protest en masse when white corpses came home in body bags and an era in which many whites fled to the university and became part of the white intelligentsia that now gets to interpret today’s wars to the public.

Therefore, the struggle is two-fold. First, the institutionalized anti-war and peace movement must find ways to address the larger issues that force communities of color in disproportionate numbers into the US military, issues that the US military is also responsible for helping to maintain and enforce. Second, it is imperative that activists have a larger conversation about bodies that matter and how such racist/sexist notions inform who the military aggressively recruits as well as the current moral crisis of white people being expressed in talk about the draft. If both do not happen, the institutionalized anti-war and peace movement will simply remain a place in which the ever-impending threat of a moral crisis for whites dominates the agenda, an agenda that gets its coherence from the pain and suffering of non-white bodies, a pain and suffering that supposedly does not devastate us.

Tamara K. Nopper (tnopper@yahoo.com) is an educator, researcher, writer and activist in Philadelphia. She currently volunteers with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (www.objector.org) doing research and publication work, along with planning “Taking it to the Streets,” a recent counter-military recruitment training for people of color.

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