America is worried about her civic health.
The steady hum of discontent over our individualistic culture has grown louder recently, from retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry’s forceful argument in favor of a military draft to Joe Klein’s insightful Time cover story, Can Service Save Us?
The answer is no.
Compulsory service, whether military or civil, is not the answer to America’s civic malaise, nor is it consistent with our values, except during times of acute national crisis. We should be replicating what works now, not resurrecting problematic policies from the past.
Why is the draft being discussed when we don’t need full-scale mobilization for war? How can a freedom-loving people even consider this as an option?
The usual arguments are a sad mix of wishful thinking and misguided patriotism. Justifying conscription rests on one of two pillars — promoting general welfare, or providing for common defense. The latter is rarely cited in today’s discussions, even though it is the only reason the Supreme Court has ruled Constitutional, mostly recently in United States v. Holmes, in 1968.
Our common defense is not the problem.
America is more than capable of protecting and advancing her interests. Our President commands the most powerful military known to human history. A draft, then, must be based on promoting the general welfare. In this case, American wants its young men and women to be instilled with an ethos of service and collective responsibility.
However it’s described, the formula is basically the same: this formative experience will tie together each group of heretofore unrelated peers, forging a grand community in the finest tradition of the American Melting Pot. But is the main effect of instigating compulsory service? Or is it a desirable by-product of an otherwise dangerous policy?
Forcing people to partake in something against their will should be considered a necessary evil. Having the governmental machinery to conscript young people is problematic for any rational American. It is a last resort, not a civic medicine. It has been 238 years since the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and the fighting that birthed the United States.
We have imposed drafts for a total of 40 years, just 17% of our history.
Conscription is not an American tradition. Consider too that almost all of the draft years when we used conscription took place between 1940 and 1973, when World War II and then the Cold War gave us justification for maintaining a larger standing military. This policy was changed under President Nixon, much to his credit, kicking off the evolution and professionalization of America’s military during the 1970s and 80s.
Since then, we have called upon the armed forces to accomplish difficult tasks in dangerous places time and time again.
These professionals have done a remarkable job, even when the strategy and leadership changes direction. It turns out a relative small group of tech-savvy warriors is all we need. What draft proponents are describing now is a solution in search of a problem.
Conscription is meant as part of a national mobilization in support of a clear existential crisis, as determined by Congress and the President. What is that threat now? How will we know when it recedes?
Contrast this with our current system. Recruits are attracted to the cause of national service for a variety of reasons, ranging from family tradition to patriotism, and everything in-between. Sweetening the pot are benefits for those who serve honorably — these incentives pull in people from all walks of life, including those who immigrated here in search of safety, freedom, and opportunity.
America’s volunteer force — not some clumsy system of conscription — is the template for attracting young people to causes greater than themselves. Rather than forcing people into any service program, the federal and state governments should be concerned with offering valuable incentives. If someone can earn money toward or lower their interest rate for college, he or she will consider serving as a means to that end.
Paving roads or caring for the elderly may seem worth delaying other plans. And the rest of us need to accept it if doesn’t.
We must operate under the assumption that people know what is best for them, and can make a better decision with the support of their family and friends, than any government bureaucrat armed with a spreadsheet.
Serving others is a good toward which we should all strive. America can direct young talent to these opportunities, but it won’t happen through force. Instead we should attract them to service, building habits and friendships in support of each other.
William Treseder served as a Marine sergeant from 2001 to 2011, deploying to Iraq in 2008, and to Afghanistan in 2010-11. He now works for a defense technology firm in San Francisco.