The Real Cost of War

June 30, 2010

Every time the list of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is published in the paper, I read the names aloud. The age of the dead continues to startle. The great majority are so young. I’m also struck by where the great majority come from, small towns in the south and Midwest, Brooklyn, the Bronx, etc.—places that are home to the country’s working class and poor. No rich kids need apply. I’m sure there are a few from privileged circumstances, but does anyone doubt that these are the exception? This war—America’s great war on global terror, aka “the defining struggle of the 21st century”—is one in which the upper classes need not fight. This, interestingly enough, was one of the causes of the ferocious Draft Riots that broke in NYC in July, 1863. (Yes, I wrote a novel about them.) Faced with the Civil War draft, a man had several choices. He could enlist and seek one of the bonuses being offered. He could wait to see if his name was picked. He could pay $300 (a year’s wage for an average working man) to be excused from a single round of the draft, or he could hire a substitute to go in his place, which cost about $1500 and which permanently excused him from the draft. (I bet you can guess which one J.P. Morgan, Jay Gould and other Wall Street financers did.) With the all-volunteer army we have created, in effect, an army that excuses the children of the rich from serving but which brings no financial benefit to the country. So, I say, let’s return to the system used in the Civil War. Let’s subject everybody (and sexism be damned, I mean everybody) between 18 and 40 to the draft and give him/her the chance to but his/her way out. For the equivalent of four years of tuition at an Ivy League institution—say $250,000—a person will be excused from a single round of the draft. In the case of sending a substitute, which involves covering the cost of training, outfitting and maintaining a soldier in Whereverstan for a year or so, let’s put it at a ballpark figure of $2.5 million, a fairly piddling sum in comparison to the $25 billion in bonuses paid in 2009 to the country’s top hedge fund managers. This alteration won’t change the situation we now have with the all-volunteer army, which is largely made up of poor and working-class kids from outside urban and suburban cocoons of privilege (like the one in which I live). It will, however, help the moneyed classes to become true stakeholders in the global struggle, not just spectators. (Congress might even consider authorizing purchasers to amortize their investments in deferments over time and authorize lending institutions to bundle loans as collateralized debt obligations, which could then be traded…you know the drill.)

One comment

  1. Paddy,
    one needs to consider the human cost on both sides. paying attention to the large number of iraqis who have been eaten up by the beast of war will also help in what you are trying to achieve. if public only knew the true, devastating consequences of war, perhaps they would be more reluctant in supporting it. That wasn’t the case with the Iraq war. Even months after Iraq had been invaded, a good 79% of Amercians still supported it!!!


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