Ballot Box

A Slight Draft

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day talking with undergraduates at my alma mater, Yale. It was my first visit to a college campus since Sept. 11, and I found it both surprising and heartening. The dominant sentiment among the 20 students who I and a few other journalists joined for dinner was clearly hawkish. Those in the anti-war minority sounded intelligently skeptical, not reflexively anti-American. Most encouragingly, the students I spoke with sounded eager to do their part in the war effort. Several said they were reconsidering their previous career plans with an eye toward public service. One senior, attempting to describe the feelings of his classmates, said they were prepared to do whatever duty was demanded of them. His complaint was that the only sacrifice President Bush had asked so far was that they go shopping.

One possible reaction to this objection is: Go ahead, join the Marines. But for most college students, that’s not an appealing option for a variety of reasons. Military service now entails a minimum three- or four-year commitment and points in the direction of a military career. Even at non-elite universities, many students do not imagine the Army as a promising outlet for their talents. And what the senior at Yale said underscores an important point: The readiness of people to serve their country doesn’t obviate the need for the country to place the call. This is a version of the paradox with which William James begins his famous 1906 essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” People desire the socially unifying and morally uplifting aspects of war. But as James notes, “only when forced upon one, is a war now thought permissible.”

James’ essay asks how society can benefit from war’s ennobling effects without its destructive ones and concludes by arguing for a peacetime conscription against “nature,” or what we would call civilian national service. Ironically, what James thought of as a peacetime problem has become a wartime one as well. Today, even an open-ended fight in self-defense does not obviously demand any kind of great public sacrifice, such as a broad call-up of 18-year-old men. This leaves us with a curious, inverted problem: not how to meet the personnel needs of the country but how to meet the needs of personnel who want to serve their country. “No thanks,” just doesn’t seem like the appropriate governmental response.

Some people have responded to this predicament by asserting that we should revive the draft even in non-exigent circumstances. In the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris and Charles Moskos run through many of the familiar arguments in favor of conscription. They contend that even if the military doesn’t need cannon fodder, the country would benefit if young people performed tasks ranging from peace-keeping to airport security. They note that the United States is an increasingly class-stratified society and that universal service would bring about the kind of class-mixing people remember fondly from World War II (or from World War II movies). And like other supporters of universal service, Glastris and Moskos argue that it would benefit those who served, giving them a shared experience of contributing something to the country. It’s essential to this argument, of course, that a revived draft be modeled on the World War II version, not the Vietnam one that allowed the sons of privilege to avoid serving.

In a way, what’s striking about the case for bringing back the draft is how little it relies on anything that has happened since Sept. 11. When the country goes to war, it does feel as if young men should be drafted, if only to share the risks of getting killed and having to kill more fairly. But since the end of the Vietnam War, service in the U.S. Armed Forces has not been an especially dangerous job. Even during the Gulf War, it was safer for young men to serve in the infantry than it was for them to stay home. Signs point to military service remaining a relatively low-risk option in the War on Terrorism. There is no need for a massive infusion of manpower at present, at least as far as the Pentagon is concerned.

Several arguments against conscription, on the other hand, actually have grown stronger since America was attacked. Universal service with a non-military option would mean finding work for something on the order of 3 million to 4 million young men and women. Inevitably, a new labor force of that size would displace many people now employed in the private and public sectors. When unemployment was running at 4 percent, the idea of some displacement might not have been especially troubling. There were plenty of jobs to be found. But with layoffs surging, the idea of taking people’s livelihoods away for the sake of tapping youthful idealism becomes much more troubling. A national service worker assigned to airport security will take that position away from someone who needs it more. Now would also be the worst possible time to force the military to digest a vast supply of personnel it doesn’t want.

But the argument against any kind of involuntary national service that I find hardest to counter is more basic and remains the same as it was before. A draft means depriving young men and perhaps young women of their personal freedom. Our society clearly has a right to do that in wartime and perhaps the moral obligation to do so in order to apportion its heaviest burden fairly when it anticipates large-scale casualties. Sept. 11 reminded us all that such a time could come again in America. But if Uncle Sam doesn’t need you, he shouldn’t take your liberty away for the sake of such intangible goals as social cohesion, moral uplift, or class-mixing, as important as those things are.

None of these hesitations, however, diminishes the case for a strong system of voluntary national service. This idea, which circulated in New Democratic circles throughout the late 1980s, finally took programmatic form in AmeriCorps, which began under President Clinton in 1993. Over the past eight years, AmeriCorps has grown to significant scale, now enrolling some 50,000 volunteers at a time. It’s a program that does a lot of useful work such as building houses and assisting the elderly while providing the kind of opportunity for public service that many idealistic young people seek.  

The problem is that, as Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute argues, AmeriCorps is a successful program that has so far fallen short of becoming a transformative one in the way that the Kennedy-era Peace Corps was. The fact that applications outstrip available slots by 2-1 is only part of the difficulty. One limitation is that because AmeriCorps volunteers work mostly for charitable organizations rather than for the federal government directly, many participants lack the feeling of being part of a collective generational enterprise. Another is that the program has an anti-military, or at least a non-military, ethos. And because AmeriCorps was closely associated with Clinton, there has never been a broad political consensus in favor of it.

Yet AmeriCorps has the potential to grow into something bigger, less partisan, and more socially significant. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., have proposed quintupling the size of the program over the next eight years, to 250,000 servers at a time. Their bill would put more emphasis on the residential components of the programs that foster a sense of espirit d’corps. It would also include a “citizen-soldier” option that would work along the lines of the old, much-beloved GI Bill. In exchange for 18 months of military service and 18 months of reserve duty, volunteers would receive an education voucher worth $18,000. That kind of incentive would enhance contact between the military and civilian spheres of society, though I’m not sure how much class-mixing it is likely to produce within the military itself.

This approach avoids both the democratic problem of unjustified compulsion and the practical one of finding useful work for millions of young people in the midst of recession and war. At the same time, it points in the direction of national service one day becoming a kind of social norm and expectation. No young person would be forced to serve his country. But no one could say that he hadn’t been asked.