Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I don't know why no one is talking about reinstating the draft.

It's a question that occurred to me more than once during the Presidential campaign, and seems even more relevant now, in this economic downturn: why don't we bring back the draft?

Since 1980, the Selective Service System has been registering young men between the ages of 18 and 25, against the day that the U.S. government might reinstate conscription. I don't know how many people work for that agency; I don't know exactly what the agency does.

In 2008, however, it seems like the worst form of anachronism. Even its name is weirdly insulting. "Selective"? Select whom? Select men instead of women, select young instead of old, select high school dropouts instead of college graduates? And in this environment of stop-loss and declining recruitment numbers, what's it going to take to put this system into operation?

Candidate Barack Obama talked about creating a national service program, creating a sort of GI Bill for a broad spectrum of public service jobs. I wish he'd gone one step farther, and proposed compulsory service for all Americans between the ages of 18 and 25.

It wouldn't have to be military; it could be teaching, it could be hospital work, it could be highway construction. But it would be two years of work that would basically be donated to the country, in exchange for room and board and money toward higher education. Most important, it would be a shared experience that would bond us as citizens.

I'm sorry I didn't serve in the military. I wasn't old enough when I graduated from high school, and then the circumstances of my life sent me in a different direction. But I think about this particularly today, on Veterans' Day, when the old men gather to reminisce about what they went through together.

Some day the Iraq War veterans will do that, too, but it won't be the same. They'll always be a minority, and their pride will always be tempered by a certain touchiness, an anger about having to defend their decision to serve. That's not fair. That's not right.

It is good that we have this day to honor the men and women who fought for our nation. It is bad that they are an ever-declining minority of our population. We should all be veterans.


spyscribbler said...

It's an interesting question. First, I'd like to understand why military families are on food stamps, and we're paying contractors over 100K a year.

Not to oversimplify the issue, but something is seriously wrong with that picture.

Ed Lamb said...

The Dianne Rheem (sp.) show on NPR had a lengthy segment on the military draft. The expert panelists agreed that reinstating the draft would be a bad idea for several reasons, the foremost being that for the first time, it would be truly random.

College enrollment is no longer is automatic deferment, and older practices such as selling conscriptions are right out.

The second reason is that the military is a relatively small sector of the U.S. workforce. Around 1.2 million men and women are currently under arms, but the working-age population of the United states is a little larger than 200 million.

Accounting for the number of volunteer soldiers and sailors, you'd be looking at drafting probably less than 100,000 people each year. That borders on capricious.

Cumpulsory national service is an idea I wholeheartedly endorse, especially since I would have been 4F for many reasons if drafted.

A military draft just wouldn't work now.

Kevin Wignall said...

This is two different issues. On the one hand, the service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be part of a generation under arms (and thank goodness for that), and history will look back on those wars as being as pointless as Vietnam was, but that in no way suggests those people should be shown any less respect than any other veteran. Even if the political decisions that sent them to war are unsound, these people are always willing to stand up and be counted - in some way, their patriotism is more evident when the war is questionable, because it shows their utter commitment.

I should also add that this country (Britain) had a long tradition of a professional army before World War One and it has also had a long tradition of respecting and admiring the actions of that army. If it's being lost today, it's not because we can no longer "relate" but because we increasingly show less respect as a society to those who do what we would rather not. That's a shame, but I'm not sure of the solution.

As to a national draft? I think you suggest it for all the right motives, but I oppose it on the grounds that it infringes personal liberty and because I doubt it would achieve what you imagine. People are effectively drafted between the ages of 5 and 18 - if you can't make good citizens of them in that time, would you really succeed with an additional two years?

AnswerGirl said...

You're right that it's more than one issue, Kevin. And it's true, Ed, that the military isn't a big part of our economy, so I was thinking more in terms of broader compulsory service.

And Natasha makes a good point about the US military vs. the British -- traditionally, senior members of the British Army were independently wealthy, and weren't expected to earn much in Their Majesties' service. The US system has tended to follow that model, without having any tradition of aristocracy in military service.

But you're wrong about the indoctrination that goes on between 5 and 18, Kevin, because it varies so wildly depending on what kind of education kids get here. A 17-year-old educated in an inner city public school has a wildly different set of values and expectations than a 17-year-old educated in a suburban public school, or one educated in a rural Christian school, or one educated in a snooty prep school. Education's not a shared experience in that sense; my memories of Norfolk Academy (est. 1728) don't bear the slightest resemblance to those of someone who went to a Norfolk public school.

Boot camp, that would be a common experience.

Kevin Wignall said...

Probably didn't express myself properly, Clair. I accept that the education system varies dramatically, but what I was suggesting is that the concentration should be on making that a positive and shared experience for all children. If the Government can't get that right (and in the US and the UK they clearly can't), then they'd probably make a mess of any post-18 service.