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Consciousness fades, but the wars continue

National sacrifices have steadily vanished from view.

By Paul Jablow

Most of those gathered around the television set that spring morning in 1968 were just curious about what the president would say. For me, the stakes were much higher.

The television was at the North Carolina newspaper office where I worked as a reporter. Lyndon B. Johnson was about to tell the country whether he planned to call up military reservists for the war in Vietnam. He did - some 24,500 of them.

For the next few weeks, I worried that number would include me. It wasn't that I feared being killed; I was in an Army Reserve training division, and our mission would have been stateside. I just didn't want my journalism career interrupted.

Two weeks later, the reprieve came for me and other members of the division, mostly middle-class white men holding decent jobs. If a training division were taken, we heard, it would be an Appalachia-based unit; its members were largely unemployed, and they told their congressman they wanted to go.

With President Obama about to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan, I thought about that spring. And I was reminded that this country's wars - or at least the shooting parts of them - have always tended to be fought by those with the fewest options.

Now, however, war has become not just "safer" for most of us, but almost invisible. It has receded from everyday consciousness into background noise.

Today there is an all-volunteer Army made up largely of people from modest backgrounds. Private contractors are supplementing them in ways no one would have dreamed of in the past. Suspected terrorists are being terminated by remote control from CIA headquarters. There are no photos of men and women being wounded and maimed. And all of it is on borrowed money.

Yes, during the Civil War, a man of means could avoid service in the Union Army by hiring a substitute. But few men did that, and few families, North or South, escaped intact. And everyone saw Mathew Brady's chilling photos of the conflict - corpses and all.

My own first memories are of the waning years of World War II, and at least I can remember the ration coupons, blackouts, and the closing words of the nightly prayer I was told to say: "... and God bless President Roosevelt and all the soldiers in the war." And the grown-ups had the photographs of that war's Brady, Robert Capa.

Korea was also fought by draftees - one of them a fellow reporter who had lived to watch President Johnson on the newsroom TV that morning only by killing a Chinese soldier who had overrun his foxhole. Around the time he was doing that, I and my classmates in New York City were doing air-raid drills, fleeing to the school gym or ducking under our desks to shield us from Soviet attacks that, we now know in retrospect, were about as likely as a shark attack on Broad Street.

Vietnam started quietly with a few thousand "advisers." The first combat troops, in the mid-1960s, were volunteers. There was still a draft, though, and most people like me had to face it, join the reserves, or head for Canada. No Purple Hearts, perhaps, but we had basic training, weekend drills, and sweltering summer camps.

Then the Army started sending draftees to Vietnam, and the antiwar riots got really bad. When the war ended in 1973, the draft went with it. And so, it seems, did wars that required sacrifice from all of us.

Some who see the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as fool's errands think that bringing back the draft would make the country pick its battles more selectively. Others have suggested a special tax surcharge to force more of the country to make some sort of sacrifice.

Another thought occurred to me in a dark moment while I was chatting with a friend. (Alcohol may have been involved.) I suggested we put a new twist on the old Civil War custom of hiring substitute soldiers by reinstating the draft, but letting people buy their way out of it according to a sliding scale based on family income.

"That Goldman Sachs guy, Lloyd Blankfein - to get his kid or nephew out, he'd probably pay enough to support a whole infantry battalion for a year," I speculated.

None of those things will happen, of course. The troops will eventually come home - propelled, perhaps, by a cleverly defined "victory" or the press of domestic needs.

And we will still have the question of whether they were there partly because we could send them and still enjoy the illusion of sacrifice-free invisibility, or so we thought.