Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Economics of War

With the growing worldly unrest, the clear provocations that Hitler was foisting on Europe, and with the country still enjoying its “splendid isolation,” President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. With a single stroke of his pen he created the country's first peacetime draft and formally established the Selective Service System as an independent Federal agency.

With this act, Congress had declared that an “adequate armed strength must be achieved and maintained to insure the security of this Nation.” Secondly, that in a “free society the obligations and privileges of serving in the armed forces and the reserve components thereof should be shared generally, in accordance with a system of selection which is fair and just, and which is consistent with the maintenance of an effective national economy.” The wheels were set in motion for the United States to defend the world against the opponents of civilized thought, life and humanity.

This Act, more commonly known as The Military Selective Service Act created the obligation of a man of eighteen years to register for subsequent conscription into military service. Thirty years after Roosevelt affixed his signature to the law, I affixed mine to my draft card, but I was far from ready to defend anybody from anything. The most imminent threat to my life was the pending acceptance to college.

A few months before FDR signed this act into law, and half a world away, Hitler completed the “Great Polish Defensive War” and began the occupation of Poland along with the Soviet Union. Mass expulsions started in various parts of the country. Some 100,000 Jews were expelled from Polish territory during this period. In fact, more than 50 Jewish communities were deported wholly or in part.

Germany and Russia pursued their own official policy of "Selection" in which able-bodied men, aged 14 and over, were sent to labor camps which had been established in the Lublin and Kielce areas of Poland, and then on to Siberia. Women, children, and old men were deported in sealed freight cars and covered cattle cars. Upon arrival at their destination, some of the deportees were dead, others nearly frozen, or otherwise seriously ill. The survivors were bereft of clothing, food, and money. A few found refuge with relatives or friends, but most of them perished even before subsequent mass deportations began.

A young boy about 11 stood with his mother in the falling snow, herded by the occupying forces with several hundred others onto the train into several cattle cars. He was burdened with all that he owned in a tattered carpetbag and his mother’s suitcase. There was no room to sit as he stared through the slats. It was bitterly cold and the snow drifted horizontally as the train slid out of the station.

My first year of eligibility for the draft was 1971. The Selective Service Department randomly picked birthdays and draft order. We were all assigned a number from 1 to 366, indicating the order in which we would be called up. There was no escape for those born in a leap year. In 1969 all numbers through 195 were called. In 1970, numbers through 125 were called to serve. Vietnam had an insatiable hunger for young lives, and kept demanding more and more of them. In our continuing role as the defender of the free world and defender against all things evil, our draft boards very efficiently processed enough human capital to fill coffers and coffins alike.

The war for the hearts and minds of America’s stout hearted boys had long been lost. The sails that had billowed under the threat of the Communists and the Domino Theory were now empty of the wind that had propelled them. The country had no more fortitude for war. The war machine may not have been ready to stop, but we had swallowed the poison pill by turning the guns on our own children at Kent State where four young students died in a clash with the National Guard and nine more were wounded.

I was assigned my lottery number in August of 1971. It was 104. Even though I had obtained a student deferment to complete my college degree, it was quite disquieting to contemplate a life quite different from my current one. While I loved my country and all the freedoms that I enjoyed as one of its fortunate citizens, Vietnam had turned the country’s stomach to acid. Defending freedom just didn’t have the same patriotic ring to it that it did when I was in the fourth grade when the whole mess was just beginning. Nor many years earlier when that young Pole stepped onto the train.

In the fall of my junior year, Vietnam was finally beginning to wind down. Richard M. Nixon had been swept once again into office this time with a “Secret Plan” to end the war. With his democratic opponent winning only the state of Massachusetts, this was taken by the administration as a clear mandate to end the war in a manner of its own choosing.

The drafting had slowed. Fewer and fewer numbers were being called each month. By mid December the draft board had called up to 95 and there were rumors that there would not be an additional call. I watched the news as intently as I could to try and ferret out the hidden meanings in the reports about the war and the draft. On December 21st I wrote a letter to my local draft office releasing my student deferment. I waited out that last week in December, fully eligible to be called to war and heavily burdened with even the merest possibility of it.

The world somehow became a brighter place when in a couple of weeks I received my new draft designation from the Selective Service. Spring came just a little bit earlier that winter. I had ridden out my eligibility requirement and was now truly free to breathe again – to buckle down and find new purpose. I changed my major to economics and launched into a course of study that would get me out of college at the end of four years. At least this war was behind me.

There were still young men dying in Vietnam, and this would continue for two more years -- until April 1975, the official end to the war. Perhaps not the worst of it, but at least the bulk of the dying was done. This had been the prolonged struggle between nationalist forces attempting to unify the country of Vietnam under a communist government and first the French and then the United States (with the aid of the South Vietnamese) attempting to prevent the spread of communism. There was a tremendous cost in human life and re-assimilation into society for those who fought and survived.

A memorial to this war was dedicated in November of 1984. The social cost of warring against an ideology is almost insufferable. Many survivors today are still troubled by their experience and only marginally functional contributors and participants in their own life. The Vietnam War Memorial lists the dead. Men still cry at its walls.

In the spring I took a class in Macroeconomics, a branch of economics that deals with the performance, structure, and behavior of national economies. Its purpose is to seek to understand the interplay of aggregate trends in an economy with particular focus on national income, unemployment, inflation, investment, international trade and international finance. A course in macroeconomics looks at different types of economic systems and how they function. With our own economic system as a benchmark it was fascinating to see the efficiencies of Communism vs. Capitalism and the interaction of social policies and philosophical thought.

Our Professor led us through discussions and debates on which systems were more efficient and why. In our sterile class room, the consensus was that communism was more efficient for bootstrapping countries that were clearly third world, but that once a certain level of vibrancy and economic self sufficiency was obtained then communism became too burdened with the human element. There were some who disagreed and thought that it could work forever if people would just buy into the concept of working for the greater good.

It was Dr. Brzeski’s position that communism, as it was implemented in Russia's 5 year plans, become too complicated to track and perform against, and socialism saps the initiative of the human spirit. It had to collapse of its own accord – but there was no empirical evidence that it would. The experiment of communism was too young and our enemies didn’t run away just because we threw our blood at them.

As is true of many college campuses, the liberal leaning holds sway over the classroom and public forums. Many a conservative is shouted down at free speech rallies and the establishment is something to rail against rather than to appreciate for the freedom it allows us.

Likewise, college classrooms are isolated from the realities of life. Utopian ideas abound and fresh young minds grasp at the possibilities and potentials of a perfect world. In economics, the world is reduced to supply and demand curves with homage to interest rates and money supply. The pain of the loss of a family member rarely plays a part in a discussion of an investment frontier in which “guns or butter” is the most typical example of the concept of economic choice. Dr. Andrzej Brzeski did his best to instill in us some sense of reality when at the end of his course he told us about getting on that train.

I was long gone from the university when the USSR collapsed in December of 1991. I was the father of three boys and hoping that they too could survive without the touch of war that narrowly missed me. I am not proud of not serving, I am merely thankful that some of us did and only remotely aware of the true cost. It had been twenty years since I first met Dr. Brzeski and had thought of him only rarely in the intervening years. I was not an outstanding student. He would not have remembered me. But, I remembered him and I regret that I could not have said, “You told us so.”

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