A new logo for the Aspen Ideas Festival was unveiled at the closing event on Tuesday, July 2.
A new logo for the Aspen Ideas Festival was unveiled at the closing event on Tuesday, July 2.Smith / Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Return of a draft

Should the U.S. military bring back the draft? Three American novelists who’ve written books about war weighed in on the question during a wide-ranging conversation about literature and the military Sunday night at Belly Up as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Karl Malantes, Marine Corps veteran and author of the Vietnam War novel “Matterhorn,” advocated bringing back the draft to reconnect the country to its wars. The all-volunteer force used in Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he argued, put too great a stress on the fraction of Americans fighting, some doing as many as seven tours in war zones.

“I think we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, that we’re asking them to do that,” Malantes said, drawing passionate applause from the Ideas Fest crowd. “It’s too much.”

Novelist Ben Fountain, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning “Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk,” characterized the last decade of conflict as a “reality disconnect,” where civilians at home were untouched by the realities of war, enjoying tax cuts and giving up nothing during America’s longest war.

“No one on the home front was asked to make any sacrifice. … Only when you yourself or someone you love very much is involved, that’s what makes it real,” Fountain said.

A draft could keep the country out of unnecessary wars, he argued, while giving all Americans “skin in the game.”

The pair disagreed, however, about whether the U.S. should make national service mandatory for civilians. Malantes championed the Aspen Institute’s recent launch of the Franklin Project, which aims to make peacetime service in organizations like Americorps, Teach for America and the Peace Corps a mandate or an expectation on young Americans. Fountain said the idea was unfair, because young people today already are saddled with student debt and a weak job market.

“Now we’re going to go to them and say, ‘Oh, by the way, we want you to do two years of national service?’” he said. “You can’t dig a deeper hole for them.”

Lee Carpenter, author of the new Navy SEAL novel “Eleven Days,” added that improving education about war — and reading war literature — also could better engage Americans on the home front, and give them an understanding of the true price of war.

Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News

Harm in Legal Pot?

About 100 or so people gathered in the Greenwald Pavilion on Monday morning at the Ideas Fest to hear a debate on the question of “Should pot be legal?”

A brief survey by the moderator, James Bennet of The Atlantic, showed that almost all of them were in favor of making pot legal.

Also on Monday morning the state of Colorado issued detailed rules for how recreational pot in Colorado should be grown and sold next year, when it will be legal for those over 21 to do so.

Today, private use of pot is legal in Colorado, but retail sales don’t begin until January. New rules from the state’s department of revenue were due out Monday.

The rules require labels to include potency, expiration dates and a disclaimer that pot isn’t legal outside Colorado and hasn’t been safety-tested.

Recreational pot also will come with the disclaimer that “there may be health risks associated with the consumption of this product.”

And health issues were at the center of much of the debate Monday on the question of whether pot should be legal.

Asa Hutchinson, who was the director of the DEA under President George W. Bush, said he thought marijuana should remain criminalized.

He said their are carcinogens in the smoke, productivity issues at work, driving while impaired was a concern; legal pot sends a bad signal to teenagers and would likely cause a spike in use.

“That’s not to say it is a 100 times worse than alcohol, or some other drug, but it does have adverse health consequences,” Hutchinson said.

Nearly all of Hutchinson’s points were then refuted by Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

He said moderate use of marijuana has no discernible health effects, that experienced marijuana users had little trouble driving, that teenagers already have ready access to the drug, and that an increase in use occurred in the 1970s in states where it had been decriminalized. It also occurred in states that had not decriminalized it.

Nadelmann added in Colorado and Washington — where voters also passed recreational pot last fall — there was a risk that marijuana use will go up, but not among teenagers.

“It will be less expensive. It will be easier to get,” he said. “But I don’t think the real risk is among young people.”

He cited multiple surveys that showed teens today have easier access to pot than to booze.

“Where marijuana use is going to go up — it’s going to be people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s,” he said. “It’s going to be older people going ‘Damn, it helps that arthritis, I didn’t realize that.’ Or ‘It helps me sleep at night.’ Or ‘I actually prefer it to having a drink at the end of the night.’ Or ‘I prefer it to the pharmaceuticals my doctor is giving me for my mood or my anxiety or whatever.’

“So that’s where I think we’re going to see the increase,” Nadelmann said.

At the end of the debate, Bennet did another survey of the relatively old Ideas Fest crowd, and there was no change in the convictions that they walked in with, which is that pot should be legal.

– Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

A Leaky Week

Should NSA leaker Edward Snowden be prosecuted as a traitor? Did The Guardian violate the law by publishing his leaked information about widespread monitoring of Americans?

Six prominent journalists and scholars took up these questions in a heated debate Sunday night in an Ideas Fest forum at the Hotel Jerome, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — who has promised a congressional investigation of Snowden — seated in the audience.

Gary Rosen, of the Wall Street Journal, argued that the Obama administration is justified in its unprecedented number of prosecutions of leakers under the Espionage Act. And news organizations, he said, should be prepared to be criminally charged as well. Journalists and news organizations “should be accountable for these clear violations of the black letter law,” he argued.

Harvard law professor Noah Feldman rebutted Rosen, contending that the feds prosecute leakers inconsistently and unfairly, often sanctioning certain leaks while treating others as crimes.

Snowden, Feldman argued, should only be prosecuted if all leakers are prosecuted. And the federal government, he argued, should protect the vital role of the press by adopting a federal “press shield law,” as every state in the country has. Such laws, with varying strength, protect journalists from testifying about sources or facing criminal prosecution, just as priests are protected from sharing what they hear in confessionals.

“Fifty states think that journalists are the same as priests, they don’t have to testify” Feldman argued. “The federal government doesn’t.”

Heidi Moore, an editor at The Guardian, which broke the stories about Snowden’s revelations, said that the paper went to the feds and told them what they were going to print, asking if it would pose any specific threats to national security. The government, she said, specified no threats. Publishing leaked information, from Daniel Ellsberg’s “Pentagon Papers” to Snowden’s NSA information, is a vital part of the press’ role in the U.S., she argued.

“The role of a journalist is to present the world as it is,” she said. “It is not the role of a journalist to present an official account, or what a spokesman tells you. … It is your job to accept these leaks.”

She also said Snowden was aware he would be prosecuted, and is avoiding the U.S. only because he is unsure he would receive a fair trial here.

With the definition of “journalism” in flux, the growth of activist journalism online and organizations like WikiLeaks providing classified documents on the web, the posture of the law will likely change, the panelists agreed. Feldman called it a “transitional moment.”

Howard Fineman, of The Huffington Post, said Snowden’s leaks were vital, though he may be a “loathsome figure” who infiltrated the NSA and contractor Booz Allen Hamilton with the intent of leaking classified information. The widespread surveillance of Americans that Snowden revealed constitutes a threat to American life as we know it, Fineman argued.

“That is a dagger aimed at the heart of what the American experience is about,” he said.

– Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of the Aspen Ideas Festival. The Daily News ran a version of this story on July 2, 2013.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...