Today’s headlines are full of the military “mobilization” occurring in Russia in connection with the war in Ukraine. As Russian police and military—men in power—knock on doors in the middle of the night to serve unsuspecting draft-age men (not in power) with enlistment papers, other men are rushing to the airports or driving cars to the border, desperate to escape. This brings up fifty-year-old memories of a time when I and my whole generation were draft age, subject to men in power, facing conscription into our country’s war in Vietnam.
I haven’t seen any articles or commentaries drawing those parallels and making those comparisons yet—perhaps because it happened too long ago or it is thought that our long-ago war is not relevant to today’s world—but I see all too familiar patterns. I’m not talking about comparisons in a geopolitical or historical sense, but watching what is happening in Russia, I realize that a military draft is but one example of a more general phenomenon that has recurred throughout history: men in power imposing their will on men, not in power. That is what men in power do and have always done—impose their will, sometimes at the cost of untold lost lives—on innocent citizens—or sometimes slaves–who have no compelling interest in the goals and purposes of these men in power; they just want to live their lives free from interference, and free from being told what to do.
I graduated from college in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam war. The draft was in full force. Young men were being drafted and sent into battle by the tens of thousands. In college, a deferment protected us, but once we graduated, we were vulnerable to being drafted. Everyone who was draft age had to figure out what to do. Some took their chances and allowed themselves to be drafted or enlisted in the National Guard. Others signed up for graduate school in the hope of a continuing deferment. Some fled to Canada. Some faked a medical condition or injury; to that point, I read that the internet search “How do you break an arm?” is trending in Russia now. For myself, I entered seminary—another foolproof deferment—but soon, I became uncomfortable with my safe status. Like many men of that time, I joined the “draft resistance.” I dropped out of seminary and became a full-time antiwar organizer. I and my fellow activists expected to refuse induction if we were called up and prepared to go to jail for defying the draft. It was a heady, risky time.
As it happened, I didn’t go to jail. The United States of the 1960s was not the Russia of today. There were laws, limits, and exceptions. The men in power in those days were powerful enough, but their power was not unlimited. Even President Johnson understood the limits of his power and secretly told his attorney general not to arrest the draft resisters for fear of causing societal revolt (this fact only came out decades later). The U.S. was not a monarchy. One of the legal exceptions to military service was conscientious objection based on religious belief—a carveout to conscription with a long hard-won legal and moral history in this country—and in the end, as I ended my antiwar activism and became a Buddhist priest in training, I convinced my draft board that my religion was a pacifist and that my religious objections were sincere. I’m sure the draft board members—all of whom were World War II veterans and some of whom fought in the Pacific against the (Buddhist Japanese)—didn’t agree with or understand my position, but they honored the rule of law. The law said that if my objections seemed sincere, they had to exempt me, and they did.
All of this is to say that our country had some scruples—even though, in my view, it made a grave mistake in its involvement in Vietnam at the cost of more than 50,000 American lives. Still, the men in power of those days did not have unlimited power. In contrast, we live in a world today where in many countries, the men in power do have virtually unlimited power. That is the temptation of having power; you never feel you have enough; you always want more. That is the dictum attributed to Lord Acton: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
You notice that I have not spoken of women in power. Women do sometimes have power, even great power. There have been queens in former times, for example, who abused their power. But often enough, it was others, other men in power, who carried out their wishes or their wars. Somehow I can’t imagine a draft board—like the one I confronted—composed of women. There is something about men and power that expands and grows beyond itself until, sometimes, it is beyond measure. Power is our thing as men.
A nuclear weapon is now the ultimate power. During the height of the Vietnam war, the U.S. contemplated using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. There were policymakers and generals who wanted to do it—who wanted to escalate to the ultimate power. The decision was made not to do it, but for a while, it was touch and go. Now we are hearing this conversation again.
Though the nuclear option is the ultimate power, so far, at least for the last 80 years, it has not been used. But that is scant comfort. Men in power cannot but think of the ultimate power. It is in the nature of their power that their thoughts go that way.
That is what scares me.
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