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A Modest Proposal — For the Draft

Requiring national service may sound harsh, but done right, it could give everyone a little of what they want.

by
Jules Crittenden

Bio

April 18, 2008 - 12:00 am

Calls for a draft are being revived. Here’s anti-war author Frank Schaeffer at the Huffington Post. Here’s the Sacramento Bee’s public editor, fielding readers’ calls for a draft. Here’s Aileen Morey at NPR’s “This I Believe.”

The argument can be summed up simply. Only a small percentage of Americans are carrying the burden of the war. This is unfair. More to the point, it has been impossible to get parents and college kids to give more than a passing damn about the war.

The calls for a military draft are in fact calls for forcible enlistment in the anti-war movement, which has suffered greatly from its failure to recruit in the current voluntary political involvement model. The calls for a draft are nothing more than frustrated efforts to bolster the effectively non-existent anti-war movement to Vietnam levels by swelling its ranks with suddenly concerned suburban Americans.

It’s populist anti-war posturing, not based on any kind of political or military reality. One place you’re not hearing much about a draft these days is Congress, which figured out some time ago it was a non-starter, as noted here by Dan K. Thomasson at Scripps Howard. His op-ed underscores the lack of reality, as he rattles on about the unfeasibility of invading Iran, on the erroneous assumption that curtailing the nuclear ambitions and support of terrorism by Iran would entail a massive onslaught of ground forces.

The idea is further detached from reality by the fact that, under Bush or McCain administrations, a draft doesn’t have a prayer. Under an Obama or Clinton administration, presumably it becomes unnecessary as they rapidly pull us out of Iraq and theoretically eliminate the need for a larger military.

But these people take themselves seriously, so it is only right we should consider their proposals with all the seriousness they deserve. There is after all a serious underlying problem, even if it isn’t the problem they are trying to address.

What do we do about an overstressed military? Their rhetoric aside, it is becoming increasingly clear that neither Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton actually plan to pull out of Iraq with quite the rapidity they’ve suggested. As great a campaign selling point as abrupt abandonment is, they may privately realize how disastrous a pell-mell pulling up of stakes would be. John McCain, more realistically, expects us to be in Iraq for up to a century, much as we’ve been in Germany, Japan and Korea for more than a half century now. All of that means we need troops.

Acting with the usual half-measures, Congress and our wartime administration belatedly decided to add a few tens of thousands of troops to the Army and Marines. As ridiculous an idea as it was to go into land wars with half an army in the first half of this decade, it seems absurd to persist in the same condition.

Meanwhile, our nation has other problems. Rampant, uncontrollable illegal border crossing has created an underclass of millions in which crime and abuse thrives, placing a burden on local taxpayers. Also, there are the problems associated with disaffected youth, detached from reality not just in the traditional self-obsessed ways young people always have been. They are staying home and returning home to reoccupy empty nests more, and spending more and more time staring at screens where their lives are lived. The latter phenomenon alone marks a dramatic uncontrolled social experiment, the consequences of which can only be guessed. Early indicators — weight problems, possible mental health problems, propensities to violence — aren’t very encouraging.

There could be a quick and easy fix to all of that. It does require compromise, a little give and take. Sometimes the best answer is something that gives everyone a little of what they want. The draft could do it.

This would not be your grandfather’s draft, though. We’re talking about a draft that will bring the country together, not rip it apart.

Draft opponents note that we currently have the best military in the world. A highly professional, highly trained, high-tech volunteer force. The world has never seen anything like it. The last thing we want to do is bog it down with a bunch of reluctant whiny short-timers. The draft will have to be engineered to prevent the cure from killing the patient.

So here’s the deal. First off, no exemptions. At 18, it’s off to the draft. If you’re not physically fit for military service, then it’s off to the Work Corps. More on that later. For now, suffice it to say that jobs can be found for all. Those mentally unfit for military service — to include those who don’t want to be in the military — also go to the Work Corps, where appropriate tasks will be found for all.

Military draftees will serve two years. They will be limited to non-combat roles. They could help eliminate a lot of those Halliburton contracts that drive everyone crazy by performing the same cleanup, truck driving, and hash-slinging positions at or below minimum wage.

Those who do want serve their nation in combat may volunteer to do so, which will make them eligible for higher rates of pay, enlistment bonuses, and enhanced GI Bill benefits. They can in fact get the only kind of deferment this system offers, with scholarships in advance, by committing to military service upon completing college. In the case of some selected professions — doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, various useful specialties — individuals can commit to four years of post-graduate government service and also enjoy government scholarships.

Women, presently barred from combat arms, can also enlist for the full range of opportunities and benefits they now enjoy in the military, some of which of course do include combat. Our military, in its key functions, can remain the highly trained, highly motivated professional force it has become in the 35 years since Vietnam.

While there may be some tensions in a two-tiered military, those professional soldiers can provide an inspiration for the draftees that may in fact encourage many of them to properly enlist and better their lot. With non-combat roles making up the bulk of any military, a draft of this sort could allow vast expansion. It will also restore the common national experience that an older generation remembers fondly, when everyone was a part of the same thing, and everyone did their bit.

Which brings us to the Work Corps.

Note the negative “work” connotation. This name may sound a little harsh and unappealing, particularly to those unacquainted with labor. It is intended to.

The political appeal of this whole program is based largely on its military components, with the potential to both boost and undermine the war effort. But in fact the Work Corps is the heart of the program, and could accomplish several ancillary but important social goals.

First off, it will get whiny American kids out of the house and introduce them to honest, sweat-of-the-brow work. For the benefit of their nation.

Drafted youth who don’t choose the military option will be assigned to Work Corps units dotted across the country, and as far as possible from wherever they are from, with a good geographic, social, and multicultural mix. The units will be sited on military bases or other federal land, convenient for busing to job sites but remote from temptations.

To help the Work Corps draftees bond and give them a running start on cooperation and work skills, their first task will be to build their own low-carbon-footprint plywood barracks. They’ll be heated by “green” woodstoves which will require details to chop and haul sustainable firewood, ultimately from forests planted by earlier Work Corps generations. They’ll have “green” composting outhouses, and also haul their own water, to encourage husbanding of water resources.

If they are ingenious enough to build functioning windmills out of packing crates and baling wire, then they get electricity. They may also have one pay phone per barracks, and free paper and mailing privileges, to encourage contact with family. It might be worth considering movies, projected onto outdoor screens, as a weekly reward for high-performing groups. But Internet, TV, video games, all verboten.

This last will of course be highly unpopular, but it is important for a new generation of Americans to have the opportunity, if only briefly, to exercise their minds independently and learn how to entertain themselves without the crutch of electronics. While military draftees will not have to build their own barracks, and will have benefits such as electricity, they should also be afforded the same opportunity to expand their minds free of electronic hindrances. If they and the Work Corps draftees feel they are unable to do without the Internet, they are always free to enlist. In today’s exciting technological battlefield, that will afford American youth the opportunity to play highly realistic and interactive video games.

About those Work Corps barracks, by the way: So that every incoming class of draftees gets to enjoy the growth experience of building their own domicile, exiting groups will be allowed to burn theirs. The barracks-torching celebration will be their final expression of joy at having served their nation, with the knowledge they are creating an opportunity for those who come after to start from zero just like they did.

Work Corps labor could be applied to all kinds of public works and conservation projects at minimum wage, driving down the cost of civic works and vastly accelerating the rate of maintenance and improvements to existing facilities. Work crews, in their multitudes, could also be made available to private employers as day labor at minimum wage for construction sites, farms, restaurants — any kind of business that requires low-cost, unskilled temporary labor.

As you can see, we are not just addressing military manpower and costs, instilling a sense of social responsibility, providing work experience, and creating the kind of national camaraderie that shared hardship brings as boys and girls from Brooklyn to 90210 sweat and toil alongside each other. We will also cut dramatically into our economy’s demand for illegal aliens. Within a few years of initiating this program, we won’t need a border fence or another amnesty.

Because America is a great land of opportunity, it might be worth offering illegal aliens the opportunity to enlist in the United States military and earn citizenship, or even to participate in a seasonal, as-needed basis to bolster Work Corps ranks. But the demand for their labor will have plummeted, and where there is no demand, the supply should rapidly recede. If it fails to recede quickly enough, then the law might be amended to allow the supply of recidivist illegal-border-crossing labor to be introduced to another part of the draft program.

The Punishment Battalions.

Like the Work Corps, “Punishment Battalion” may sound harsh to some ears, and that is similarly by design. It’s where draftees go if they are insufficiently motivated and insufficiently cheerful in their work or bolt from the program or otherwise try to dodge it. Their term of service gets bumped from two to four years. There is always work no one wants to perform, and they will perform it, for no pay. There is always roadwork in Alabama that needs to be done, rocks that need to be broken, Superfund sites that need to be cleaned up. They will not enjoy the amenities of Work Corps accommodations. They will, however, enjoy the same right at any time to improve their lot by enlisting, providing the military will accept them.

I know some of this may sound extreme. I know it sounds like it might, in places, verge from the New Deal into Stalinism.

But I don’t see why that would be an obstacle to an America hoping for change, concerned as it is in creating a shared burden and social betterment. It does involve a little give and take on various political priorities, but it is hard to imagine the politician who wouldn’t jump at the chance to do so much good. It is also hard to imagine the parents who wouldn’t want to see their child devote the brief span of two years to a great adventure, see them become a man or a woman, by serving their nation and earning some sweat equity in it.

Jules Crittenden, a Boston Herald editor, blogs at Forward Movement.

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