America at War

This week on the VOA Special English program THIS IS AMERICA -- America at war. I'm Phoebe Zimmermann with Steve Ember.

After the terrorist attacks of September eleventh, two-thousand-one, something new appeared in America. Suddenly, people saw National Guard troops deployed at airports and other places. Many Americans commented on how unusual it was to see armed soldiers in public.

Soldiers are generally barred from duties as police or security forces in America. The writers of the Constitution feared that the government might use the military to suppress opposition.

But the events of September eleventh were themselves new. Hijackers had just used airplanes to kill three-thousand people at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Since then, National Guard troops have helped protect other possible targets. Last week, the California National Guard set up a lab to test for chemical or biological weapons at the Academy Awards in Hollywood.

The National Guard is a reserve organization of the Army and Air Force. Most of these part-time soldiers hold civilian jobs. These men and women are often called "citizen soldiers" or "weekend warriors."

State governments use National Guard members to help during events like floods, earthquakes and riots. The federal government also deploys them to serve in wars, including the war in Iraq.

Who serves in America's military? There are laborers and office workers. Doctors and lawyers. Engineers and musicians. They belong to different races, ethnic groups and religions. But all share one thing in common. They have all volunteered. They were not ordered to serve.

The United States first went to war in seventeen-seventy-five, a year before its independence. The Revolutionary War between the American colonists and the British continued for several years.

In seventeen-ninety, Congress defeated a proposal for every able man to take part in the military. America chose to have a volunteer army during peacetime. But in times of war, the military could hold a draft.

During the eighteen-sixties, both the federal government and the Confederate states of the South drafted men to fight in the Civil War.

For World War One, in the early nineteen-hundreds, the United States drafted almost three-million men. For World War Two, about ten-million were called to duty. That draft began in nineteen-forty, even as the United States resisted entry into the war. Then came December seventh, nineteen-forty-one. Japan launched a surprise attack on the Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The next war came in nineteen-fifty. North Korean troops invaded South Korea. The United Nations Security Council ordered military action to aid the South. The United States drafted about two-million men. The Korean War lasted three years.

Then came Vietnam. The United States fought to defend the south from the Communist forces in the north. The American military drafted almost two-million men between nineteen-sixty five and nineteen-seventy-three.

As the war went on, it became increasingly unpopular in America. Anti-war activists protested in the streets and on college campuses. They protested at the White House, the Capitol and many other places.

Some of this anger centered on the way men were being drafted. There were charges of unfairness. College students, for example, were not called to active duty.

Some Americans refused to fight. Young men burned their draft documents in public. Some draft resisters went to prison. Many fled to Canada.

In nineteen-sixty-nine, public pressure forced a change in the rules for the draft. The military started a lottery system -- in other words, a game of chance -- based on birth dates. Officials said this would be a fair way to decide who might end up in Vietnam.

Today, eighteen-year-old men are required to sign up for possible service in case of a new draft. But the military depends on volunteers to join the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard.

These include thousands of women. About fifteen percent of the military is now female. Some have died in battle. But women still cannot serve as fighting soldiers. Debate continues over the idea of women in combat.

Some people disapprove of an all-volunteer military. Charles Rangel fought in Korea. Today Mr. Rangel is a congressman from New York, a Democrat. He says too many of those responsible for America's defense are poor and members of minority groups.

Mr. Rangel, who is black, points to a congressional vote last year to give President Bush permission to use force against Iraq. He says only a few of those who voted for the resolution even have children in the military. And all but one of those children, he adds, are officers.

In January, Mr. Rangel proposed to renew the draft. He says all Americans should share the worries and risks of military service.

The Defense Department opposes the idea of a new draft. It argues that minorities have moved up in the military. It also says they are represented in numbers similar to their numbers in society.

In recent months, many American families have said goodbye to a husband and father, or a wife and mother, called to service. These families must learn to deal with their new situation.

For example, a businessman in Arlington, Virginia, belongs to the National Guard. A few weeks ago, the military ordered him to active duty. His service pay is not nearly as much as he received as a civilian. His wife says she is not sure she can earn enough money to make their house payment each month. Congress has recently moved to help troops in the Persian Gulf with costs at home, including child care.

A young teacher and Marine from Miami, Florida, was just told to get ready for duty outside the country. He worries that his two-year-old son will not recognize him when he comes back. Or, as the man says, IF he comes back.

During the nineteen-ninety-one Persian Gulf War, the news media criticized American military restrictions on reporters. This time the Defense Department tried something new. It placed more than five-hundred reporters from around the world with forces in the Gulf. "Embedded" is the official term.

The reporters -- including two from VOA-TV -- received special training from the military. They must also obey the orders of commanding officers.

Embedded correspondents have provided live reports from troops under fire and on the move. Embedding should provide a more complete, and truthful, recording of events. That is the reasoning. But some reporters said this new system would also give the government a better chance to control their work.

As Americans watched the war in Iraq develop, public opinion studies found that at least seven out of ten people supported it. But big protests also took place in New York and other major American cities. In recent months, more than ninety cities passed resolutions that said the money for the war should go for social programs instead. These cities included Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.

But thousands of people who support the war have held their own demonstrations around the country.

Even some Americans who oppose the war say they want to show support for their troops. Even Hollywood, with its many proud liberals, appeared conflicted. Last week, at the Academy Awards, filmmaker Michael Moore denounced President Bush and the war in Iraq. Some people in the audience welcomed his comments with cheers, but others booed in disapproval.

In any case, it is hard to argue with the words of a retired farmer from Chesterton, Indiana. Almost sixty years ago, he lied about his age so he could join the Navy and fight in World War Two. Today, he says, "I think most people in this country believe the best war is one that is over."

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Paul Thompson. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Phoebe Zimmermann. Join us again next week for another report on life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.