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Issue No. 32 (March 2002) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Bring back the
Three decades ago I was running The Last Resort, the big hostel in Vancouver, Canada, for draft dodgers and military deserters.
And a while before that I’d burned my draft card.
So why was it that, in the late 1990s, I was petitioning the Army’s Legal Services Agency to waive its age requirement (the ceiling is age 35) and let me enlist in the JAG Corps, the Army’s lawyer corps? Why was it that I’d offered to serve in Korea or Bosnia, not most soldiers’ favorite venues?
I’m still not entirely sure. But here’s what I wrote in my application:
“Age may or may not bring wisdom. But it has given me the opportunity to see my actions in perspective.
“[And seeing my actions in perspective, I feel an overwhelming desire to] fulfill at least some portion of what I consider to be my unfulfilled duty” to my country.
Making duty real
“Duty to country” -- the phrase has an archaic ring to it. The language of duties and responsibilities has given way to a language of rights and grievances today.
But I think most of us secretly know that without such concepts as duty and honor and service, no civilization can last.
Republicans and Democrats still trot out the rhetoric of duty and service when it suits their partisan purposes. But at the end of the day, neither party (nor any third party) is willing to stand up and say to young Americans, “There are no free rides in life, and it’s incumbent on you -- you who are enjoying the fruits of past generations’ almost unimaginable sacrifices -- to either contribute some time to this country’s defense, or contribute some time to healing its wounds.”
In the early part of the 20th century, wise Americans like William James and Randolph Bourne did urge versions of “universal national service” on us, versions of conscription that would have allowed us to choose between military and civilian service. But their proposals disappeared down the Great American Rathole (GAR).
In the 1960s, everyone from Margaret Mead to Robert McNamara proposed universal national service (yes, even Secretary of Defense McNamara wanted to append civilian service to the military draft). Their proposals suffered the same GARish fate.
During the 1970s, proto-radical-middle Congressman Pete McCloskey (R-CA) kept the idea alive.
In the 1980s, Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos proposed a narrow spinoff of the universal national service idea. Following which, Senator Nunn and Rep. McCurdy proposed a watered-down version of Moskos, President Clinton proposed a watered-down version of Nunn-McCurdy, the House and Senate further diluted the idea, and in the end, lo, we got a re-tooled version of VISTA, AmeriCorps (plus a wonderful book by Steven Waldman on the whole “corrupt” and “comic” process, The Bill, 1995).
Today, once again, people of integrity are beginning to broach the real universal national service idea. And this time they’re coming from across the political spectrum. Here’s Louis Caldera, Secretary of the Army, in a speech to reporters in the spring of 1999:
“The question, I think, is not whether we should have a draft, but whether we should require some form of service from America’s young people -- whether in the armed forces, in AmeriCorps, in the Peace Corps, or in the myriad of other good opportunities to give something back to our nation and learn the true meaning of citizenship -- service they’ll gain more from as Americans than they can ever imagine. . . .”
The idea isn’t as viscerally unpopular as you might think. In 1999, Rasmussen Research asked a cross-section of Americans whether every 18 year old should be required to perform two years of mandatory government service. Those under 30 opposed the idea by a two to one margin -- but the split was only 16% to 8%. Three quarters of twentysomethings didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other.
And those over 65 favored the idea by a 49% to 36% margin. Thus spake our elders, those who’ve had the longest time to “see [their] actions in perspective.”
Making duty concrete
At least three major universal-service proposals have been offered since the Moskos-Nunn-McCurdy diversion.
Each comes from someone occupying a different point on the meta-political spectrum. Col. David Hackworth is “America’s Most Decorated Living Soldier,” Amitai Etzioni is a communitarian scholar and activist, and Mickey Kaus is a neoliberal journalist.
(The earliest versions of their proposals can be found in, respectively, an article d. 8 Sept. 1999 on www.hackworth.com; Etzioni, Spirit of Community, 1993; and Kaus, End of Equality, 1992.)
Combine their proposals and here’s what you get:
1. Draft everyone at age 18 or after high school (if they’re still in high school at 18 -- Etzioni);
2. That’s EVERYONE, pardner -- male or female, rich or poor, gay or straight, dumb or lame;
3. Give everyone some basic training. “In boot camp they’d learn the basics -- drill, discipline, teamwork, leadership, responsibility and citizenship -- while getting physically hard and mentally together” (Hackworth);
4. Then, give them a choice between one year in civilian service, or 18 or 36 months in the military (except for those unfit for military service);
5. The kids in civilian service get modest stipends; those in the military for 18 months get “much higher” pay (“to compensate for the greater risk” -- Kaus); those in the military for 36 months get “a World War II-type GI bill upon discharge” (Hack).
For those in civilian service, I’d add two more points:
6. Place them in unfamiliar settings! “National service should [put people to work] in environments they do not usually encounter,” says Yale political science prof Rogers Smith (in the anthology New Communitarian Thinking, 1995).
“For example, . . . an African-American woman [from the inner city] might serve as a teaching assistant in suburban social science courses, a role which . . . might educate all involved.”
7. Make them think about and discuss their experiences! In other words, make them practice what’s beginning to be called Service Learning.
“Service Learning is community service . . . accompanied by systematic reflection,” explains NYU psychology prof Susan Andersen (in a paper d. 1998 at www.gwu.edu/~ccps/pop_svc.html). “Reflection allows [people] to try to understand . . . the difficult conditions they have observed. [And it] builds bonds between [those] who might not otherwise engage in dialogue.”
Many conscripted young people would choose to go into the military. But for those who don’t -- and for those who can’t meet the military’s physical or academic standards (64% of service-age males, according to Army data) -- there are plenty of other USEFUL tasks to perform.
“Many severe social problems persist because the solutions are labor intensive and expensive,” says Waldman. “But the nation could reap long-term gain if people [performed] these tasks for submarket wages.”
Col Hackworth likes to imagine civilian draftees in six separate “corps,” as follows (the last two are mine):
Ghetto corps. To test for and clean up lead paint (Waldman), repair and maintain public spaces (Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in Kaus), etc.
Police corps. To help patrol public spaces (Kaus), help collect child-support payments (Waldman), provide escorts for seniors in bad neighborhoods, etc.
Hospital corps. To serve as nurses’ aides (Townsend).
Education corps. To tutor youngsters (Etzioni), work in day care centers (Kaus), serve as teaching assistants (Rogers Smith), etc.
Environmental corps. To act as a “rural ‘conservation corps’ to clean up the environment” (Townsend), facilitate urban recycling (Andersen), etc.
Assisting-the-elderly corps. To help the infirm in nursing homes (Etzioni), and provide home care for those who can avoid nursing homes if they get such care (Waldman).
Infrastructure corps. To help contractors rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.
Peace corps. To expand the original Peace Corps’ presence tenfold.
Universal national service means we’d no longer be perfectly free to do anything we wanted every year of our lives. For one year, at least, we’d have to respond to our country’s call to service.
But what we’d lose in perfect freedom, we’d more than make up for -- both as individuals and collectively -- in other ways.
Amitai Etzioni likes the fact that universal service would force us to interrupt our “‘lockstep march’ from grade to grade and into and through college (or directly into the adult world of full-time work).” He thinks we’d use the time to find our bearings, get a better grasp on what we want from life.
Mickey Kaus captures another key benefit in three words: “Salvage impoverished youths.”
Thomas Ricks, a leading military journalist, thinks conscription would dramatically improve the deteriorating relation between military and society. As it is now, he argues, civilians are increasingly ignorant of military culture -- and military people are increasingly contemptuous of civilian life (see esp. Making the Corps, 1997).
Rogers Smith thinks its high time we mixed all races, classes, and economic groups in a common endeavor. “[A]ll Americans [would] get a richer understanding of the variety of conditions, histories, opportunities and constraints that constitute the lives of the hugely diverse American citizenry of today,” he explains. Who knows, maybe even empathy would develop.
Above all, though, today’s universal national service advocates see their proposal as a character building device. Etzioni could be speaking for all of them when he says, “[M]uch of the potential impact of national service lies in psychic development, in enhancing the individual’s self-respect, sense of worth, and outlook on the future. [It] would provide a strong antidote to the ego-centered mentality as youth serve[d] shared needs.”
Duty: A cost/benefit analysis
The economic costs of universal national service would not be exorbitant.
Etzioni estimates that if every 18-year-old participated, total cost would be $33 billion a year ($11,000 per person times three million people). Waldman uses a Clinton aide’s “secret” memo to estimate $12,000 per person per year -- but even that works out to only $36 billion per year, about one-ninth the military budget.
And that’s not counting deductions for, e.g., salaries for young people who’d be in the military anyway; savings on welfare and unemployment; and savings from reduction in crime.
Indirect economic gains might be even greater. Etzioni points to some of them when he says, “By encouraging and developing the virtues of hard work, responsibility and cooperation -- to name a few -- national service would . . . improve economic productivity. [And it] would probably provide young people with greater maturity and skills than they would normally have upon entering college or vocational training[, further] benefiting themselves and the community.”
Moral gains should be added in too.
A huge segment of my generation knows it didn’t answer its country’s call, and even though many of us are proud to have opposed the Vietnam war, many of us are not proud to have not served this country at all. In the 1960s, you either signed up to kill Vietnamese or dodged (or more cleverly avoided) the draft. Those were your only choices. The result was a cynicism and alienation that many of us -- me included -- feel to this day.
Now our soldiers are basically mercenaries. And millions of crucial civilian tasks, from tutoring ghetto youth to comforting infirm elderly, are going undone because they can’t be fitted into the formal economy. Everybody knows this, and that’s feeding the cynicism and alienation of new generations of Americans.
We need universal national service so we will all perform the tasks we know are ours.
We need universal national service because duty and honor are as necessary to us as oxygen and water.
I still want to join the JAG Corps. . . .
An expanded version of this article is in my book Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now (Westview / Perseus, 2004); see Chapter 12, "Bring Back the Draft, for Everyone This Time," pp. 125-34.
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