Thursday, February 14, 2013

Williams: Reinstate the Draft

This week Buz argues for the institution of a regular two-year stretch of military service for every young American, and while I disagree entirely about the form, on substance I think he has a point.

Why this would come up now I have no idea. Perhaps it's been stuck in his craw for a decade or so, shown in his gratuitous use of Rep Charle Rangel as a punching bag for a couple of grafs. (Why  regressive writers are so uniformly compelled to waste ink on irrelevant references to their favorite bugbears I'll never understand.)

But to get to the substance, I agree that as a people we could greatly benefit from a custom of participation in civic duty. A large part of why our political discourse is so enfogged with simpletonian nonsense is that so few people involve themselves with government and public service, leaving them ignorant of its value to us all. Requiring people to participate won't solve that problem entirely, but it could help a great deal if handled in the right way.

It's amusing that Buz, a Tea-Party-styled tax-hating libertarian who sees government as the enemy, is advocating an across-the-board military obligation, but the idea is well grounded in the Constitution and our legal history. At the founding of the nation every (white, male) citizen was drafted as a militiaman, and further required to arm himself to a basic standard of gun and ammo at his own expense and give of his time to training. (I know, the NRA utopia.)

My ancestors accepted that obligation because the most important public good at the time was facing down an oppressive occupier with no compunction about killing rebels. Need I point out that those days are long past?

The military draft ended because as our military missions shifted after 1946 from defending our homes, allies and values to securing resources and enriching corporations, it just stopped working. Better educated draftees could see what was happening and refused to buy in, feeding into the debacle that was Vietnam.

Further, a military investment to the degree Buz is advocating — can you imagine how much it would cost to pay, feed, clothe, equip for war and maintain the health of every 18-year-old in the country for two years on an ongoing basis? — would be a pretty near dead loss for the country. Military operations, whether active or in reserve, produce nothing beyond the profits of the suppliers. When they're active, military operations destroy, adding long-term cost burdens both here and around the world, and making enemies to boot. No, Buz, our military is not a character-building school, though that may be a side-benefit for some, it's a machine for killing people and breaking things. War does not make a better world.

But strip the idea down to its essential element of a public-service obligation and look at what we have in place as resources to support it. Already we have an across-the-board obligation to stay in some sort of school  up to the age of 16. Could we extend that with two years of public service, usually starting from high-school graduation and maybe taken early by those for whom high-school isn't working? Might it be broadly beneficial to push the usual entrance to higher education back for a couple of years, maybe providing the new student college credit or cash for their service? Could our nation benefit from the infusion of young people learning about and helping with water delivery systems, public administration and accounting, bridge and highway construction, design and improvement of parks and public lands, museums and educational systems, election systems, public safety, and on and on according to their interests? And wouldn't those benefits be at least as large for the young people involved?

It would still cost, but that would come back as real benefit to us all, and we could see that benefit both in the practical improvements in public infrastructure and in young people better equipped to be adults.

So yeah, Buz has hold on a piece of a Big Idea, one that's worked very well for us in the past: New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration provided exactly the sort of disciplined experience with public service that Buz says he likes. It hasn't yet occurred to him just how socialist it is, of course, even in its military form. I won't tell him if you won't.


Steven M said...

I hope you are not discouraged by the few comments your words generate...they are great food for the thinking person and dessert for like minded soles. I'm under the impression that currently, many countries have compulsory service for their youth, Israel comes to mind, I think their are others. Notice how rarely (if ever) America looks elsewhere for answers to it's problems? Our real and assumed greatness blinds us to lessons from afar. Maybe it's time we start looking elsewhere for answers...we could import them as we do everything else.

Steven Ayres said...

Thanks, Steven. I don't measure success in comments, but rather the number of readers who come through, and those are usually plenty.

Israel, with its perpetual wartime footing, isn't a great example of the benefits of community service, although it works better as an example of what could evolve here if we were to institute the military model. As far as I've seen, mandatory service in other countries always involves military involvement as at least a major component. But conscription for any kind of service, military or otherwise, seems to be falling out of favor worldwide.

I've said before that volunteerism, whether in government programs or nonprofits, is a usually high-value activity for both the volunteer and the organization, and finding a way to reward it via tax credits or other means could be very useful. Tying community service to educational achievement is at least as interesting an idea.

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