Monthly Archives: June 2016

Do Our Lives Belong to the State? Why Selective Service Must End

Last week, I signed a petition to eliminate the requirement to register for Selective Service in the United States. This is an issue that I have been interested in for over a decade, but it has only recently been getting traction. The reason? Attempts to require women to register for the draft are increasingly gaining momentum. On the one hand, it is insulting and discriminatory toward both men and women to require only young men to register for the draft. On the other hand, it is a strange victory for feminism when women previously free from the possibility of conscription are now at risk of being forced to fight in whatever war the United States government deems expedient. The possibility of women being drafted has gotten many more people thinking about whether or not the government should have a right to draft anyone. As I have made clear before, I believe that the answer is “no.” While I understand that good, reasonable people can come to different conclusions on this, I submit that it is morally impermissible for the government to basically compel people to die for them. An inescapable implication of conscription is that our lives belong to the State and that the State decides when we have to put them on the line and possibly die. This is utterly inconsistent with a free society. It is especially egregious when the government engages in unnecessary wars, because it means that conscripts will be forced to die needlessly. It also forcibly separates people from their homes and families and is undergirded by the idea that all people are emotionally fit for military training and service, a clearly preposterous idea. Finally, it imposes yet another burden on people such as LGBT Americans and racial minorities, who have already suffered so much exploitation in this country, by forcing them to fight at the pleasure of a government that has often been downright hostile to them. However, since as mentioned earlier, good people can disagree about the draft, I would like to address some of the most common arguments in favor of it:
1. A Draft is Necessary in Case of Emergency

There are two reasons why this argument fails. The first is that it could be used to defend any of the worst features of a totalitarian police State. In his speech explaining his vote against the Patriot Act, Senator Russ Feingold declared, “Of course, there is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country that allowed the police to search your home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your email communications; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to hold people in jail indefinitely based on what they write or think, or based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, then the government would no doubt discover and arrest more terrorists. But that probably would not be a country in which we would want to live. And that would not be a country for which we could, in good conscience, ask our young people to fight and die. In short, that would not be America.” The same basic point applies to the military draft, and, indeed, Feingold voted to eliminate Selective Service during his time as a Senator. The second problem with this argument for the draft is that it assumes that only a minuscule number of people will actually enlist to fight in a legitimate case of emergency. In actuality, the wars in which governments have had trouble finding enough people to fight have usually been unnecessary wars. One of the rare exceptions would be the case of the North during the American Civil War. The North had difficulty getting enough volunteer soldiers as the war went on because so many white Northerners were relatively apathetic to the fate of black slaves, despite the federal government’s stance that the war was necessary to preserve the union. The fact that the United States has never before or since fought an internal war due to certain states trying to secede to obstruct human rights demonstrates the unusual nature of the Civil War. And the Confederacy also instituted a military draft, further reminding us that governments often use conscription to provide boots on the ground for bad causes.

2. A Draft Is Fairer to Minorities and the Poor

This argument has existed since at least the Vietnam War. Some people who have voiced it, such as the late Senator Ted Kennedy, have been sincere. Others, such as retired Senator Ernest Hollings, a former segregationist, have had less than noble motivations. Let’s look at the first part of the argument, that the draft is fairer to racial minorities. Surely, if economic circumstances are causing young nonwhite Americans to be more likely than white Americans to join the military, that is a problem of racial inequality, not an all-volunteer military. Furthermore, the draft itself was grossly unfair to racial minorities, forcing them to fight for a country that denied them equal rights. As I examined in a research essay for one of my MA courses last year, a significant number of African Americans resisted the draft when it was in place. As for the part of the argument that the draft is fairer to the poor, this also withers under closer scrutiny. The draft in the United States has historically been riddled with loopholes that favor middle and upper class Americans. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, conscripts could literally buy their way out of the draft legally. The Confederacy allowed “one person as agent, owner or overseer on each plantation of twenty negroes” or more to be exempted from the draft. In the twentieth century, student deferments kept the burden of the draft disproportionately on people too poor to afford college. Professional athletes and sons of politicians and wealthy businessmen got to serve in “champagne units” where they were at significantly lower risk than other draftees. Furthermore, why doesn’t this argument get applied to other professions? Chances are, relatively few Americans from wealthy families become cops or firefighters, yet nobody advocates forcing everyone to spend time working in those jobs. Finally, there is the elephant in the room that any reinstatement of the draft will necessarily force a lot of poor and minority people into the military who are currently not enlisted.

3. The Draft Would Make It Harder to Start Wars

The argument goes that politicians and affluent civilians feel shielded from the sacrifices of soldiers and are therefore more willing to support wars than they would be if their children had to fight. Putting aside the fact that it’s pretty clear their children wouldn’t have to fight, there is an excellent way of proving this claim false. Far more American soldiers died in the Vietnam War than in the War on Terror. The same point holds true for World War I and the Korean War, two other unnecessary wars fought with conscription in place. How can it be true that a draft makes Americans less likely to put up with war if far more American soldiers have died with the draft in place? The fact is that since the draft stopped being active in the 1970s, the U.S. has not been involved in any war with casualties approaching anything close to the level they were during Vietnam. A big reason for this is probably that the government knows that if casualties in an unnecessary war ever again reach Vietnam-levels, enlistment rates will plummet.

Selective Service must be ended. And legislation ending it should include a clause preventing state or local governments from conscripting people, as state militias did before the Civil War. But I have a suggestion for if the draft is ever actually reinstated. I have noticed that some people who have no military background and are too old to be drafted would like to bring back conscription. Any politician who votes to reinstate the draft and does not have a military background or an equivalent background of service such as participation in the Peace Corps or Freedom Rides, ought to be drafted themselves. No matter their age or physical condition. And a portion of these politicians should be placed on the front lines, commensurate with the percentage of regular draftees who fight on the front lines. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.


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The Toxic Nature of Bigotry

By now, all of you know that an Islamic fundamentalist named Omar Mateen shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing forty-nine people and injuring fifty-three others.  Based on statements from those who knew him, his religious fundamentalism, and the location of the shooting, it is clear that Mateen was motivated by homophobia and probably internalized self-hatred due to the fact that he was a closeted gay man. It is impossible to overstate the sheer brutality of this violence, and my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their friends and families. I have long believed that bigoted statements and actions can help create mindsets that motivate hate crimes. People who grow up in societies where the laws and/or culture denigrate people based on sexual orientation, race, gender, etc. or who are raised by parents with bigoted attitudes may one day take these warped values to the extreme and commit murder. These points, among other points, are important to remember when someone asks, “What’s the big deal about a homophobic baker denying a gay couple a cake?” or “Why was it so important to legalize gay marriage if gay people could get all the same benefits with civil unions?” There’s a line in the memoir, Night, by Elie Wiesel that has also resonated with me. When Hitler passed a law requiring all German Jews to wear a yellow star, Wiesel’s father tried to assuage Jewish fear and anger by saying, “The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal …” Wiesel reflected, “Poor father! Of what then did you die?” The point here is that once you sanction discrimination, there is  no clear endpoint past which you can say discrimination is no longer acceptable. A society that bans same-sex marriage one day (as Hitler banned Jewish-Gentile marriage in 1935) may one day start killing gay people en masse. The slope of bigotry and discrimination is one of the slipperiest in existence.

The bigotry and self-hatred that motivated Mateen was probably bolstered from multiple sources. One source is Islamic fundamentalism. And as I discussed here, homophobia is rampant in mainstream Islam. Only a tiny number of Muslims practice violence against gay people, but many more support the basic bigoted assumptions of Mateen, and homosexuality is illegal in many Muslim countries and a capital crime in some. But what I also brought up in that blog was that not all Muslims are homophobic. Some Muslims are as supportive of gay rights as anyone. By tarring all Muslims with the same brush, we insult people such as London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, former NBA player Kareem Abdul Jabbar, scholar Reza Aslan, Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj, and the Muslim leaders described here. We insult Muslims who are themselves gay. Nevertheless, trying to explain away the role that mainstream Islam–because homophobic fundamentalism is not on the margins of the religion–plays in promoting bigotry is obfuscating part of the problem. We must also look at the rampant homophobia in American society in general, promoted by groups such as the Republican Party, the Roman Catholic Church, and evangelical Protestantism. Our largest religious denominations treat gay people as second-class citizens. In the Republican Party, anti-gay bigotry is not the exception. It is the norm. A Republican candidate has to bow before the shibboleths of homophobia if he or she wants any hope of winning the party’s presidential nomination. In many states, including Florida, businesses are permitted to discriminate based on sexual orientation. In all too many cases, gay taxpayers are forced to relinquish their hard-earned money to institutions that discriminate against them. Until just twelve years, some states, again including Florida, still had sodomy laws. Marco Rubio was on television to decry the shooting. That’s great, but it’s a little hollow coming from a man who has said gay parents are unfit to adopt or foster children, that businesses should be allowed to discriminate, and that he wants to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality. We all have a role to play in addressing bigotry in our society, and Rubio’s way has always been to try and make it worse. Jeb Bush decried the shooting on Twitter. I realize that he’s been trying to portray himself as a moderate, sensible Republican these days, but under Bush’s governorship, Florida had one of the strictest anti-gay adoption laws in the country, and he defended it. He has consistently opposed same-sex marriage. In the 1990s, he stated that gay rights would “create another class of victims.” Florida’s current Governor Rick Scott has consistently opposed marriage equality and refused to issue an executive to prevent state employees from being fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Donald Trump is using the shooting to try and generate support for his proposal to ban all Muslim immigrants, but he has said he hopes to appoint Supreme Court judges who will rescind gay marriage and spoke to a conservative Christian audience days ago about “marriage and family” supposedly being under attack. Every minute that people spend arguing about whether Christian or Muslim homophobia should get more attention is a distraction from the larger issue: bigotry. Bigotry is the disease. For some people, Islam is the vessel. For others, it is Roman Catholicism. For others, it is evangelical Protestantism. For others, it is any number of religions or no religion at all. I am thrilled that Anderson Cooper grilled Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi on her own history of homophobia, and I think more people need to be castigating homophobic politicians this way. All of us who believe in equality and fair treatment for people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex must say “enough.” No more discrimination. No more bigotry. No more hate crimes. Bigoted/hate speech should not be censored unless it includes direct threats. A free society must allow even repugnant views to be expressed. And censoring people who advocate bigotry and hate will simply drive them underground and make it harder to identify them. But we must make it clear that there will be no treating the beliefs of bigots with respect or allowing those beliefs to be reflected in our laws.

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Should President Obama Have Apologized at Hiroshima? Part 2

Conspiracy theories abound as to why Truman ordered the bombings. I once heard of a theory that Truman may have been motivated by anti-Asian racism. While there is good evidence to suggest that Truman was racist against Asian people, as well as Jewish and black people, it is a great leap to use this as an explanation for him dropping the bombs. After all, Herbert Hoover lamented that, “the use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul,” while also calling black and Asian people “lower races” and arguing that the offspring of white-Asian relationships were inferior to both parents. If Hoover’s anti-Asian racism did not affect his view of the bombings, it makes little sense to assume that Truman’s racism affected his decision. Some people believe that in order to prevent Japan from being divided up like Germany, Truman wanted to ensure that the war would end before the Soviet Union entered the Pacific Theater. This position, it must be noted, would mean that there was no conspiracy involved in demanding unconditional surrender, then backpedaling. If Truman wanted to end the war as quickly as possible, it would make little sense to intentionally do anything that might prolong it, including demanding unconditional surrender. Another theory is that the bombings were a display of strength, essentially done to let Stalin know what could happen to Russia if he pushed the United States too far. Ultimately, those wanting to form an opinion on whether bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary militarily will have to consult scholars with more knowledge of World War II military history. I sadly do not have a comprehensive knowledge of the arguments that the bombings were a necessity to win the war, as I am far more of a sociopolitical-intellectual historian than a military one.

Given that the bombings were morally unjustified and of ambiguous military necessity, who, if anyone, should receive an apology? Certainly not the nation of Japan itself. The United States did bear some degree of responsibility for the tensions between the two countries that helped lead to a war, but Japan was far from blameless. Japan engaged in viciously imperialistic behavior in the 1930s and 1940s and attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. And given the Japanese government’s willingness to kill civilians at Pearl Harbor, to say nothing of other atrocities like the Bataan Death March and the Comfort Women Program, there is little doubt that Hirohito would have been happy to order atomic bombs dropped on New York City, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco if given the opportunity. What happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong, but it was different from other American atrocities such as slavery and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in terms of the context. Instead, the U.S. should apologize to the civilians who were hurt or killed by the 1945 bombings, as well as their descendants, including those still suffering from radiation poisoning. These civilians were not responsible for the actions of their emperor or military, and those actions did not justify harming them. They deserve a heartfelt apology from the United States.

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Should President Obama Have Apologized at Hiroshima? Part 1

Recently, President Obama delivered a speech at Hiroshima regarding the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in 1945. The speech, as expected, turned out to be rather controversial. Some people would have liked to have seen him apologize on behalf of the U.S. government for dropping the bombs. Others are furious due to believing that the speech was too contrite. While Obama hinted that maybe, just maybe, dropping the bombs was wrong, there was clearly nothing in the speech that constituted an apology. To say otherwise is, in my view, to misunderstand the basic thrust of the speech: regret, not apologizing. He never said the words “sorry,” “apologize,” “apology,” or “wrong.” Instead, he expressed regret for the carnage wrought by the bombings and hope for a better future. But should he have apologized? To determine that, we have to look at three distinct questions. The first is whether the bombings were morally justified. The second is whether they were necessary from a pragmatic, military standpoint to end the war. The third is who the apology would be made to if indeed an apology is due.

The concept of “total war,” in which the destruction of civilian lives and property is accepted as par for the course, is one of the many things that most people are more likely to deem necessary for other societies than their own. I suspect that many Southerners who resent the burning of Southern cities like my hometown, Atlanta, would say that the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan was a moral necessity. “It ended the war,” they would say, “prevented Japan from taking over, and saved many lives in the long run.” Of course, burning Southern cities probably ended the Civil War and slavery faster and may have prevented more loss of life overall. Many people also condemn the actions of people like Nat Turner and John Brown, because their attempts at slave rebellions resulted in innocent people dying. What William T. Sherman, who cared little for the troubles of slaves, and abolitionists Turner and Brown have in common is that they waged total war on Americans. I fear that all too many people think that civilians in other countries should be subjected to total war, while Americans should never be. This is actually one of the most compelling arguments against bombing civilian targets. Frederick Douglass once said that, “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven who does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” It could also be said that there is not a person beneath the canopy of heaven who does not know that it would be wrong for them to be a civilian casualty. The argument that the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would themselves have resisted American soldiers out of loyalty to Hirohito if the U.S. military had invaded fails to hold water. In order for this argument to work, it would be necessary to know that every single Japanese civilian killed or exposed to radiation via the bombings would have resisted American forces. This, of course, is impossible to demonstrate.

The question of whether the bombings were necessary from a pragmatic military standpoint to end the war without large numbers of extra casualties is more difficult to answer. Some scholars have maintained that Japan was determined to fight to the finish despite the defeat of Germany and that hundreds of thousands more American soldiers would have died in an invasion of Japan. While they have not proven this point, they have certainly presented some evidence to back it up, and for the last seventy years or so, it has been impossible to definitively refute or corroborate it. Significant evidence exists to support the alternative view, however. None other than General Dwight Eisenhower declared, “The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Was Eisenhower at all influenced by his political rivalry with Truman to lie about this point after the fact? It is true that in 1948, when the relatively apolitical Eisenhower’s party affiliation was not widely known, some Democrats tried to get him to run against Truman in the Democratic primary. And in 1952, Eisenhower ran against Adlai Stevenson to replace Truman, becoming the first Republican president in twenty years and leaving office far more popular than his predecessor. Thus, it is not inconceivable that Eisenhower would have wanted to make Truman look bad. The same may be said of Douglas MacArthur, who also disliked Truman, was eventually fired by him, and appears to have opposed the bombings. More compelling are statements from Admiral William D. Leahy, who asserted, “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.” One wonders how conservatives would have reacted if Obama had included in his speech another quote from Leahy: “The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.” Finally, it looks quite suspicious that, prior to the bombs being dropped, the United States insisted on unconditional surrender, then allowed Emperor Hirohito to keep his position after Japan surrendered. The decision to allow Hirohito to remain symbolically in power is nearly impossible to justify, given his atrocities, but it also begs a question: if they were going to allow Hirohito to keep his throne, why did the U.S. possibly prolong the war by refusing to offer this concession in negotiations before the bombs were dropped?


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Punishing Animals For Human Mistakes

When I went to Yellowstone back in 2004, I recall being disturbed by a story I heard about how, in years past, park officials allowed the feeding of wild bears. It was great for entertaining tourists, but predictably, some bears eventually became more aggressive due to losing their fear of people and expecting handouts. The park decided to handle this problem by shooting at least some of those bears. Even at age thirteen, this seemed backwards to me. Weren’t those bear attacks the fault of people who thought it was a good idea to feed them? Why were the bears the ones who got punished? I was reminded of this story by two separate incidents, one in Chile and one in Cincinnati, in which people climbed into animal enclosures in zoos. In Chile, a man apparently tried to commit suicide by hopping into a lion enclosure. In Cincinnati, a three-year old child got away from his parents long enough to get into a gorilla enclosure. In both cases, these people ended up in serious danger–what a surprise!–and officials at the zoos responded by killing the animals. It’s the same old story: humans do something foolish, this puts them in danger from an animal, and the animal gets punished. Animals are dangerous. Everyone should know this. When a wild animal is in a zoo, they are kept in an enclosure for a reason. If an adult attempts to commit suicide by climbing into a lion enclosure, it is cruel and unfair to shoot the lions for…acting like lions. While the three-year old is too young to blamed, whichever parent or parents were with him had an obligation to watch him and make sure that he did not climb into the habitat of a silverback gorilla.

I understand that mistakes happen, kids escape very suddenly, and that good parents screw up sometimes. But that does not change the fact that parents are responsible for watching their children. Society needs to arrive at the point in which we acknowledge that we cannot slaughter animals to save humans from the consequences of human mistakes. It should be a matter of policy that if a human wanders into an animal enclosure at a zoo, the zoo will make every attempt to humanely save them, but not at the cost of killing the animal. Any human death, especially that of a child, is a horrific tragedy, and I am not trying to make light of that. Yet to handle things the way that zoos in Chile and Cincinnati is essentially taking the position that humans are not responsible for their actions and that animals must pay the ultimate penalty when humans make mistakes. Zoos should set up signs saying something along the lines of, “These animals are dangerous. Never attempt to go into  their enclosures. If you do, the zoo is not responsible for any fatal or nonfatal injuries you may incur and will not kill the animals to save you.” This sounds harsh, but so is what happened to Harambe the Gorilla. Both the man who attempted suicide in Chile and the parents who let their kid wander into a gorilla enclosure should be forced to work to pay to replace the dead lions and gorilla. And both zoos should be placed under new management immediately. I think there are benefits to zoos and love visiting them, but these disgusting incidents certainly lend some degree of credence to the idea that zoos are inhumane. If zoos are going to continue to exist, nothing like these incidents can ever happen again.

Of course, these sorts of problems do not just exist with zoo animals. We have all seen, either in person, on social media, or both, the parents who think it is funny for their children to poke, pinch, etc. cats and dogs. Then, many of them will blame the animal if their child gets bitten. This is not one of those nonsensical “kids these days” rants. Most children will not intentionally torment an animal, and there is no reason to think that modern children are any more likely to engage in this type of behavior than children from generations past. But all parents must teach their children proper behavior around pets. And all pet owners must protect their pets from tormenting by children and make it clear that their pet will not be punished if a child, say, pinches the pet’s ear and gets bitten.

Longtime conservationist and television personality, Jeff Corwin, sums up the overall problem quite nicely: “Zoos aren’t your babysitter … take a break from the cell phone, the selfie stick and the texting. Connect with your children. Be responsible for your children. I don’t think this happened in seconds or minutes. I think this took time for this kid, this little boy to find himself in that situation. Ultimately it’s the gorilla that’s paid this price.”



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