Thomas Ricks recently took to the New York Times to propose a controversial idea for solving the nation’s defense-spending conundrum: draft our kids.
Ricks suggests creating a “better and more equitable” draft than the despised Vietnam-era conscription system by presenting three options to high-school graduates: perform eighteen months of military service without deployment; perform two years of civilian national service; or opt out. Those choosing military service would be doing “paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks.” Those choosing civilian service would be “teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly.” After serving, they would be entitled to generous benefits such as free college tuition.
Already, there are flaws in Ricks’s plan. How much would the military benefit from having a flood of eighteen-year-olds working for only eighteen months? Are there really so many jobs that require so little training and can handle such high turnover? Can a country beleaguered by debates about the spending on veterans’ benefits afford such generous tuition assistance for so many? On the civilian side, his equating teaching in low-income areas to cleaning parks raises a host of problems.
But the kicker comes for those who opt out completely: “Those who declined to help Uncle Sam,” Ricks says, “would in return pledge to ask nothing from him—no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees.” He admits such a hard line could be “a political non-starter” but doesn’t acknowledge the degree to which withholding entitlements often considered a cornerstone of American citizenship would enrage the public. For better or for worse, Americans are wont to treat these benefits as inalienable rights. It would be political suicide to campaign on Ricks’s suggestions that the retirement age be raised or that unmarried conscripts receive lower wages than volunteer soldiers with families.
So Ricks’s plan is not only a political nonstarter, it’s also logistically and operationally problematic. He’s right that the United States must do something if it wants to maintain a large military and address its growing deficit, but this formulation is flawed at best.