We Don't Need a Draft But. . .
What has happened to us as a people? For a price, we celebrate our soldier-heroes at NFL festivals but see nothing wrong with sending them back into combat three and four times. Then we are surprised when soldier-suicides take more lives than the Taliban. Are we really descendants of the Greatest Generation?
Those are especially tough questions for someone like me, the last cadre of Vietnam-era draftees. At my recent 50-year high school reunion, conscription had deeply affected each of us. Larry Aldrich was a neighbor who lived three houses down, my catcher on our Little League team. He was drafted, sent to the 173rd Airborne Brigade and killed by friendly fire in May, 1968, his first day in Vietnam.
Such deaths prompted the end of conscription in 1973, the same year as Roe v Wade. If life itself had become a choice, then military service had become a career option rather than the traditional obligation of citizenship. While the all-volunteer force has served us well over the ensuing 40 years, public policy choices always carry consequences. Among them:
The Wall of Separation: With less than one percent of Americans serving in uniform, 99% obviously do not. That imbalance has created surprising gaps between the defender and the defended. Two years ago in San Antonio, for example, my offer to buy a house was rejected because it depended on a VA loan. “Even in Military City USA, no one uses VA loans anymore so the sellers and their agents are reluctant to accept them.” (This decision was reversed after I asked innocently, “So veterans need not apply?”)
Political De-Coupling: Unlike European royalty, the sons and daughters of American elites seldom grace the uniformed ranks. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry argues that this de-coupling means that the volunteer force now deploys at a rate “five times higher than…the draft force.” Worse yet, the “attendant loss of expertise, family ties and perhaps even interest” makes congressional oversight difficult. Since only 18% of Congressmen are veterans, this trend can only increase.
Civic Virtue: Ambassador Eikenberry also argues: “We collectively claim the need for robust armed forces…yet as individuals we do not wish to be troubled with any personal responsibility for manning the frontier.” His words take on additional poignancy when recalling that PTSD is a disease that, like radiation, worsens in direct proportion to exposure. Navy Seals like Chris Kyle deployed on multiple combat tours have only a forlorn hope of beating the Law of Averages.
So what can we do? Retired General Stan McChrystal, our former commander in Afghanistan, argues that American manpower needs “to distribute military service more evenly across our population. As important as (it) is during the years of service, graduating military service alumni into every part of American society is critical.” (Italics added)
To correct the shortcomings of the all-volunteer force, why not revive the tradition of the American citizen-soldier? General McChrystal today heads an ambitious initiative called the Franklin Project aimed at creating “one million civilian national service opportunities very year for (young) Americans…” Building on earlier proposals by President Clinton (“Americorps”) and President George H.W. Bush (“a thousand points of light”), efforts are now under way to construct an infrastructure of sponsors, funding, and venues to transform national service from dream into reality.
Could this also become the linchpin of a new system of tiered military service?
Let the active-duty military remain as it today: An all-volunteer force that projects American military power abroad.
Create in law an objective for young people to complete a year of national service between the ages of 18 and 25. Each would also be required to complete that service year as a prerequisite for education benefits, currently based only on need. Public-private initiatives like the Franklin Project could also incorporate many different forms of public service to satisfy the one-year obligation.
Rebuild the National Guard into a homeland security force, working with the Border Patrol to provide in-depth defense of our currently porous boundaries. Reviving the Guard’s constabulary mission would also mean ending the misuse of the Reserves as a manpower slush fund for foreign deployments. Individual service commitments could vary from the one-year service minimum to longer periods on Active and Reserve duty — with proportionally greater educational benefits.
The Economist recently diagnosed the real stakes of our civil-military disconnect: “America’s future ability to mobilize for war.” It also listed the most common reasons why young Americans fail today’s military enlistment standards: bad grades, tattoos, drug abuse and chronic obesity. My wife’s father fought in a tank-destroyer battalion under George Patton, barely surviving the battles of Bastogne and the Huertgen Forest. He often quoted Proverbs, “Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it.” Either as citizens or as warriors, prepared to defend our nation.