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Mandatory Military Service

Travis says:
Finland, Germany, Israel, and many other countries require mandatory military service among young males, or young citizens of both genders. The United States should also impose obligatory service.

I am no great fan of New York Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel, but I think his 31 December, 2002 op-ed in favor of a renewed draft is compelling (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/31/opinion/bring-back-the-draft.html). Rangel, an unabashed liberal and a combat veteran, notes that "service in our nation's armed forces is no longer a common experience." While recognizing that contradictory evidence exists (Heritage Foundation studies claim that the demographics of the American military are quite similar to those of the underlying general population (http://www.ndia.org/Divisions/Divisions/SOLIC/Documents/Content/ContentGroups/Divisions1/Special_Operations_Low_Intensity_Conflict/CDA%20-%20Who%20Serves%20in%20the%20Military%209-17-08.pdf), Rangel's words ring true to my own experience. There are families and communities where a military career is "normal" and families and communities where military service is "unusual." None of my close high school friends gave any real consideration to military service; I certainly did not.

More generally, I accept Rangel's claim that "A renewed draft will help bring a greater appreciation of the consequences of decisions to go to war." I am reticent about American military engagement, but the fact remains that I benefit greatly from American military presence around the world. The overwhelming power of the U.S. armed forces keeps all but the most recalcitrant regimes from acting against American interests. If you live in America and you like free trade (and low prices), if you like cheap oil (which almost all of us do when we're at the gas pump – even those of us who support a carbon tax), if you like free speech and free expression (which are much easier to maintain in a peaceful and prosperous country), then you owe a great debt to the American military. In the current system, I can reap all the rewards of American military intervention with little personal cost. If there were a real chance that I could be put directly in harm's way – guarding a checkpoint in Afghanistan, for instance – then the costs and benefits would be aligned in a much more real way.

But I would go further than Rangel. A draft addresses some of the ethical and moral dimensions of military engagement, but mandatory military service also has practical advantages. In our modern society, there are precious few common experiences. With modern information technology, many of us live in isolated cocoons where we only interact with those who already share our interests and biases. If every young American spent a year or two in military service interacting with persons from other regions, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds, this experience would help break down stereotypes and promote understanding.

Veterans would have a common language and experience set and, perhaps, a deeper appreciation of America's role in the world. Businesses would benefit from a pool of young workers with greater maturity and a larger capacity for problem solving. Removing a pool of potential workers from the workforce (temporarily) would marginally reduce unemployment and increase labor costs.

There remains an issue of conscience. I afford great respect to conscientious objectors – if forced to choose, I might even consider myself one. That said, I think any type of alternative service should be more onerous (in terms of time commitment, pay, or conditions) than military service.

I would prefer that the United States use its military might rarely, if ever. But if our civilian leaders determine that conditions necessitate American force, I want the costs and consequences to fall equally across class, ethnic, and regional lines.

Jim says:
Travis, I think I have died and gone to heaven! Did you really write this?

I turned 18 in the summer of 1968 when the casualty lists from Vietnam came out every Wednesday, and they were horrible. And, yes, I went to college, and took advantage of the (as I see it now) unfair draft deferment for college. Visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. brings many emotions for me, not the least of which is guilt.

Charles Rangel's and your arguments make a lot of sense. In addition to the arguments you both make is this one: One of the unseen weaknesses in today's America is that without the supporting infrastructure, even for a couple of days, most people are helpless. They can't keep themselves sheltered, warmed or fed without the almighty electrical grid and gas lines, and they don't even know it. When an ice storm causes a power outage for a couple of days, those affected are helpless. Imagine a real catastrophe lasting weeks or months. Military training would teach people how to take care of themselves in a state of isolated conditions.

There is a practical problem, however, and it was brought home to me by Captain Joseph Broz (retired), U.S. Navy. Joe says the military of today is so efficient, so automated, that an influx of draftees, especially an influx of the size caused by mandatory service, would completely overwhelm the military. It is his belief that the huge volume of recruits would bog down the regular military personnel and possibly cause an ineffective overall military preparedness for the draftees would be a constant churn preoccupying those needed to lead on the front lines of real engagements.

By the way, the military professionals I have known see combat as a deterrent to be used only as the last resort. They know the true costs of war to friend and foe alike, and strongly believe it should be used very sparingly.

I have nothing more to say and am smiling from ear-to-ear!

Travis concludes:
We have an incredible capacity to absolve ourselves of culpability for social problems. We despise the environmental destruction from the BP oil spill, yet we continue to drive recreationally. We lament food shortages in lesser developed countries, but continue to consume meat, which takes many more acres of arable land to support than vegetarian diets.

My support for mandatory military service derives from my regard for balancing rights and responsibilities. Compulsory service spreads the responsibility for protecting and promoting America's strategic interests as widely as possible among those who benefit. If the lives of more children and grandchildren of Senators and Representatives were more directly at risk, perhaps we would think harder about when and how we enter into conflicts. Maybe we would be more likely to intervene in clear humanitarian crises (e.g., Rwanda, Darfur), and more realistic about our ability to establish enlightened democracy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I want less war and more diplomacy, but if we decide to fight, we should fight with citizen-soldiers who understand what is at stake. As a nation and as individual Americans we have great power; we need to wield this power humbly and responsibly.


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