Paul Pillar

The Functions of Conscription

Thomas Ricks has made a thought-provoking proposal for reinstating the draft. It plays off a comment from General Stanley McChrystal, the retired former commander in Afghanistan, who said last month, “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.” Ricks's proposal has significant flaws, and Christopher Preble has enumerated several of them. There are more issues involved in this question than first meet the eye, however, and some further examination and discussion would be useful.

Ricks's specific idea is to offer everyone (males and females) several options upon coming out of high school. One would be eighteen months of military service but without the prospect of deploying overseas. Instead, these conscripts would be used for stateside jobs such as “paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don't have to,” and the tasks would not have to be expensively outsourced either. Pay would be low but attractive post-service benefits would include subsidized college tuition. Any conscripts who wanted to stay in the service would get better training, pay and benefits upon moving into the professional force.

Another option would be two years of civilian service such as cleaning parks or caring for the elderly, also at low pay but also with similar post-service benefits. Finally “those who want minimal government” could opt out of national service entirely but with the understanding that not helping Uncle Sam means not asking anything from him: “no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees.”

Evaluating a proposal such as this requires bearing in mind that conscription can serve several different purposes. The obvious one is to provide bodies to fight wars, and Ricks's idea of nondeployable conscripts does not appear to serve that purpose. Neither does it do much to serve the purpose that McChrystal had in mind; mowing lawns and painting barracks does not really mean having a skin in the game of war. At the risk of reprising the Vietnam War experience that some in younger generations are tired of hearing about, the way that the draft put every town and every city at risk back then was to risk having their sons killed in a combat zone. The career-delaying inconvenience of military service was also a factor for many young men, but it was not nearly the attention-getter as the danger of becoming a casualty.

It also is hard to envision how Ricks's two-class system of conscripts and professionals would function in practice at military bases across the country. The conscripts would be barely distinguishable from civilian employees, although subject to military discipline. The closest we have come to that situation was during the last few months of the Vietnam War, when the Nixon administration stopped sending draftees to Vietnam, but that period was too short to draw any conclusions.

But another purpose, which a proposal such as Ricks's could serve, is to impart in the population a greater sense of service and obligation to the nation. It would be a way of bolstering an important element of the civic culture. A good case can be made that we need to do more along this line. Despite all the tub-thumping nationalism one sees and hears in present-day America, that nationalism entails more thoughts about taking and less about giving than was true a half century ago when John Kennedy called on Americans to ask what they can do for their country rather than vice versa. It is perhaps symptomatic of this transition that this year's presidential election will be the first since World War II in which neither of the major party candidates has served in the military. And neither one performed alternative national service such as in Americorps or the Peace Corps. One of them dedicated himself from an early age to climbing the ladder of political power; the other dedicated himself to making a boatload of money by manipulating the ownership and control of businesses.

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