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Jennifer Wheeler Headshot

Yes, We're Still at War

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It's the dog days of summer. Memorial and Independence Day patrioti-cues have given way to extended vacations and music in the park. These are the hot, sultry months when nobody wants to be reminded that we are at war, and certainly most people aren't thinking about being conscripted into combat.

Yet murmurs of reinstating the draft -- following recent comments by retired United States Army General Stanley McChrystal at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 29 -- are quietly pulsing through the media, and we should be listening. McChrystal's suggestion that we should all have "skin in the game" comes, coincidentally, at a time when New Yorkers were facing the very same issue 159 years ago.

It was during these dog days of July that the city was set ablaze in the Draft Riots of 1863. The Civil War was in its third bloody year, General Lee's Confederate army from Virginia was on Union soil, and both sides had just suffered enormous casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. New Yorkers were suffering: relentless profiteering and a shortage of goods had led to high rents and depressed wages; women whose husbands and sons had volunteered for the Union were not receiving the aid that had been promised to them; and the city was increasingly divided along class and racial lines.

By the summer of 1863, resentment of blacks had escalated among "Peace Democrats" in the North after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and news that a person could avoid conscription by paying $300 (a vast sum for most) was the last straw for working class New Yorkers. They began to organize and on the second day of the draft, July 13th, took to the streets targeting New York's most privileged (the military, government and elite) and most underprivileged (the black population). For the next four days, until troops regained control of the city on July 16th, New York combusted and burned. The violent mob committed abhorrent atrocities against blacks, burned down mansions of the rich and powerful and beat policemen and soldiers.

In July, 2012 we aren't facing angry mobs, nor are we anticipating an invasion from Virginia, and that is what makes it so easy to forget that we are at war. We have been at war for nearly 11 years. Most of us don't have "skin in the game" (we aren't even paying for the war yet); we aren't reminded of war in the way we eat (no rations), work (no factory jobs left vacant by soldiers), or interact with our communities (no calling up of the National Guard -- that happened a long time ago). Our troops have been deployed, re-deployed, and deployed again. They are the best trained fighters that the world has ever seen, but they are literally sick and tired. This year more soldiers have taken their own lives than have been killed in combat in Afghanistan. Nearly every day, one U.S. soldier commits suicide.

Juxtaposing the events of 1863 with the near and now does not mean passing judgment on the possibility of a 21st century draft. Rather, it is a reminder that history can be a useful part of the conversation. We may not have skin in the game today, but we don't have to be insulated from the ugly and inevitable debris of war and conscription. For New Yorkers, it's all around us. Pay a visit to Fifth Avenue, the block just past the New York Public library between 42nd and 43rd streets. Now occupied by designer stores and offices, this is the place where, on July 14th, 1863, New York's orphanage for black children was burned down by an angry mob. Take a stroll to the financial district and envision Gatling guns positioned from the windows of Wall Street office buildings, ready to rain fire on the working class rioters below. Or walk to the intersection of Clarkson and Hudson streets where a black Village resident was beaten, lynched and burned.

We are surrounded by memories that have been layered and preserved in space and time, memories that when unearthed, might help us ask the right questions going forward. Let's take war out of its sterilized, plastic-wrapped package and face the fact that it is not pretty and one way or another it reaches home. The first step may be to talk about a draft, a raw and terrifying idea to most, but the alternative -- being comfortable at war -- is so much worse.