I’m a fan of writer Thomas E. Ricks – I devoured one of his book’s on the Iraq war “The Gamble,” and have his blog in my Google Reader feed. I didn’t, however, love his recent NY Times Op-Ed advocating a return of the draft:
Unlike Europeans, Americans still seem determined to maintain a serious military force, so we need to think about how to pay for it and staff it by creating a draft that is better and more equitable than the Vietnam-era conscription system.
A revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school. Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.
Those who don’t want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay — teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.
My initial reaction to this was somewhat parochial and Navy-centric – the last thing our military needs is a couple of million of people who are pissed off to be there and just marking time until they can go to college or be an I-banker or whatever it is they really want to be doing. Leading and motivating Soldiers and Sailors is always a challenege, even in an all-volunteer force – I do not want the military to be stuck dealing with “babysitting” the hundreds of thousands of new enlistees that would come in under this program.
Matthew Iglesias over atSlate,however, raises a more serious objection from the standpoint of larger society:
the coercive authority of the modern state is chock-a-block with money-saving and profit-making opportunities, but it’s rarely the case that trampling over human freedom in an arbitrary manner is a better way to take advantage of that fact than collecting taxes. Conscription is probably best used for its original purpose—sometimes you have a war of such a large magnitude that financing it strains the administrative capacity of the state to such an extent that you need to resort to in-kind levies, including of human beings. But desperate measures call for desperate times.
I actually used to be in favor of a generalized draft along the lines listed by Mr. Ricks, but have turned against it largely for the reason listed by Iglesias – conscripting someone into ANY form of national service (armed or otherwise) is the single greatest intrusion into personal liberty that our society allows. Only an existential threat should justify such an extreme measure.
Which isn’t to say that a draft might not be good for society – I think one of the under-valued effects of WWII was the cross-pollination effect of moving millions of young men around the country and around the globe. A nation that had previously been relatively regionalized was all of a sudden full of young men with friends and experiences from across the country – a modern draft could have a similar effect, pulling disadvantaged youths out of the crushing bubble of an increasingly ghetto-ized America (and force ADVANTAGED youths out of the comforting bubble of an increasingly ghetto-ized America.)
That said, good policy isn’t the same thing as just policy – it might have a positive effect, but it’s at the cost of years of liberty for millions of Americans. Barring a new threat akin to the Nazi’s, I just don’t see it being justified.