10/25/2010 10:18 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

To Restore Sanity, Bring Back the Draft

If Jon Stewart really wants to restore sanity, not just civility and pre-9/11 levels of insanity, he should hold a rally to bring back the draft. Nothing would be more salutary for the Home of the Brave. The Pentagon would hate it, of course; universal conscription is its worst nightmare. With two and a half wars raging and others in the works, you'd think the top brass would want bodies. But they have found that they can make do with economic conscripts and mercenaries and unmanned killer drones. It's a small price to pay for keeping the American public enveloped in a miasma that makes the imperialist wars today's military exists to fight possible.

Since the occasion for the Stewart/Colbert rally is obviously next Tuesday's election, it is worth noting how that miasma makes the current electoral cycle uniquely appalling. The Tea Party is bad enough, but proto-fascist wing nuts and useful idiots have always been with us; the difference now is only that they have their own media outlets, and that the Republican establishment bends to their will. Mainstream Republicans are more than usually vile this time around, but there's nothing new in that either. They have been vile since even before Richard Nixon launched his Southern strategy. That the lesser evil in many electoral contests this year is nearly as execrable is also not exactly news; right-wing Democrats too have always been with us. The most appalling thing isn't even that Obama and Pelosi et. al. are in full-fledged "fool me twice" mode -- still blathering about "hope" and "change" and "getting the job done." Yes, some of the legislative achievements they brag about include worthwhile reforms. But they also epitomize the servility of the Obama administration before the nefarious interests -- financial, corporate, military and other -- that are not just part of the problem, but the problem.

No, what is uniquely appalling is that America's wars roll on and are not an issue at all. How can Obama hold his monster pep rallies, and no one call him to account for the wars he now owns! Not long ago, this would have been unthinkable. Has permanent war become so normal that we no longer even take notice? That is the thesis of Tom Engelhardt's profoundly disturbing American Way of War (Haymarket Press, 2010). The 2010 elections prove him dead right.

At a time when politicians bent on assuring that the government will do nothing useful for the people it governs talk up the dangers of deficit spending, and when the Obama administration, following its predecessor's lead, uses the specter of terrorism to extend its powers -- regardless of longstanding Constitutional protections and universally accepted standards of morality and law -- this indifference is remarkable. If murder and mayhem doesn't focus voters' minds any longer, what about the squandering of national wealth and the wholesale recruitment of terrorists it makes inevitable?

The problem is not that we have become dumber since Vietnam or that our moral sensibilities have declined. It is that our military-industrial-homeland security complex has figured out how it can do its thing without serious opposition. The trick: shift the costs of war onto an inconsequential segment of the voting public, the people who actually do the fighting and their families. For that, ending the draft was crucial. It isn't the whole story, but it is a big part of it.

It would be different if we had to pay our way for our imperialist adventures. But since Democrats are Reaganites now, raising taxes is out of the question. So we borrow. Eventually, the bill will fall due, and the adjustment we have to make will not be an easy one. But, in the meantime, witless generals go on trying to get counterinsurgency right, death merchants continue to enrich themselves, and the broader economy muddles along from crisis to stagnation to crisis.

How different it would be if we had a draft -- one that, unlike the draft Nixon ended, distributed the burdens of military "service" on rich and poor alike! The very prospect would dissipate the miasma that now engulfs us faster than Obama can rile up a crowd. Then, as in the Nixon years, the cost to politicians would become unbearable -- and not all the Koch Brothers' money, backed by the worst Rupert Murdoch can foist upon a gullible public, would be able to hold the opposition at bay.

Republics field citizen soldiers. Empires equip enormous armies, hire mercenaries, and project their power throughout the world. That the United States has become an empire is bad for most Americans and bad for the world, and only a fool would think that the Obama administration will do anything to change the situation one iota. Obama almost certainly knows better. But, for some infernal combination of structural and psychological reasons, he has turned himself into the Robert McNamara of our time.

Draft resistance was once a way to oppose wars, but circumstances have turned this old verity on its head. Calling for a draft now is one very powerful way to problematize our imperial condition. It is a way of opposing what war weariness and media induced mindlessness have made possible.

Of course, conscription will not be brought back; it would be political suicide for anyone who would promote it. But that fear has no power over those of us who are not running for office in our bought and paid for "democracy." This is why we can and should mount a sustained call for restoring the draft. There is probably no better way, at this time, to break through the miasma that disables us. Real sanity means facing reality squarely, without illusions; in other words, acknowledging our government's villainy, no matter which semi-established political party is in charge.

Thanks to Tea Party madness, this electoral cycle does feel more crazy than usual. But a far more profound insanity is implicit in the imperialism-friendly assumptions that go unsaid and unthought even on Comedy Central and MSNBC. Until we realize that the saner of our two parties and the sanest of all recent administrations are part of the problem too, the imminent and eventual perils of imperial dominance will only become more severe. Rallying against nut cases like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell may be fun, but for curing what ails us - for restoring sanity -- it won't help much at all.