By Tom Robotham
When I was 15, in 1971, I thought there was a good possibility that I wouldn’t live to see my 19th birthday. The Vietnam War seemed to have no end in sight, and many of the older kids in my neighborhood had already been drafted.
My only hope for avoiding war lay in the luck of the draw—the lottery system, which had been established a couple of years earlier. In 1971, my birthday came up at number 300. (The higher the number, the better off you were.) Great, I thought. Now that I’ve drawn a high number, my odds of getting a low number when it really counts are even worse.
The following year, however, this became a moot point. The lottery system was put to an end; a year after that, the Secretary of Defense announced the creation of an all-volunteer army, and shortly after I graduated from high school the war was finally over.
I started thinking about all of this again in February when Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican from Colorado, introduced a bill in the House to abolish the Selective Service System altogether. (Although 18-year-olds are no longer automatically obligated to serve, they must still register.)
The bill has gone nowhere, but late last month the issue was further complicated when the House Armed Services Committee backed a measure that would require women to register for the draft.
From there it gets even more complicated. As it turned out, the author of the bill—California Republican Duncan Hunter—voted against his own measure. According to the Associated Press, he claims to have introduced it to spark more debate about the idea of putting women into combat. His firm belief is that women don’t belong there, and his apparent assumption was that such a debate would make this clear to everyone.
“A draft is there to put bodies on the front lines to take the hill,” he said. “The draft is there to get more people to rip the enemies’ throats out and kill them.”
In other words, ripping people’s throats out is a man’s job.
Ok, then. Time to try to sort this out.
First of all, Hunter’s mentality underscores our nation’s simplistic attitudes about gender. It should be clear to anyone with a modicum of sensitivity that most men are no more capable of “ripping people’s throats out” than most women are. The high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans is a testament to this fact. They may have had that killer instinct in them in the heat of battle, but they will pay for this experience for the rest of their lives.
Having never served in the military, never mind combat, I have no idea how the experience would have affected me. But I suspect—no, scratch that; I am certain that there are many women in this country who are more capable of engaging in combat than I am.
With that in mind, I think we can scrap the gender argument. If men are required to register, then women should be, too.
The bigger question is, should anyone have to?
This may come as a surprise to people who know me, but I think everyone should.
But wait—I’m saying that with bigger idea in mind.
As I’ve already noted, I believe that millions of men and women are not cut out for combat—or even military service of any kind. As a result, they should be given a choice: When a person turns 18, he or she would be required to register either for military or civilian service. The civilian service choices, in turn, would vary. A young man or woman could opt to be a tutor in an impoverished school district or a laborer helping to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, to cite just two possible examples. After two or four years of service, they would be free to go to college or pursue a trade of their choice.
The benefits of such a system would be enormous, both to individuals and to American society as a whole.
First of all, in my experience as a teacher at a university, most 18 year olds are not ready for college. They have neither the discipline nor sense of direction to get the most out of it. A stint in public service—military or civilian—would prepare them for higher education, or entry into the workforce, in a way that high school does not.
More important, for the nation as a whole, it would instill in people a sense of citizenship—something that is sorely lacking in America today. For decades now, our nation as suffered from what sociologist Robert Bellah once called “radical individualism”—the notion that our sole objective in life is to look out for ourselves. Indeed, John F. Kennedy’s belief that we should ask what we can do for our county is now beyond quaint. In today’s society it is largely a joke.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the large numbers of people who insist that we need to put “boots on the ground” to crush one enemy or another. There are few things more disgusting, to my mind, than people who have never served in combat urging other people to send their children to slaughter.
A draft would help repair this disconnection from society and reality.
At the same time, the civilian option would help us overcome a host of other problems. Take bigotry, for example. Most bigotry, in my experience, stems from blurry impressions that people have of one group or another. The more we get to know people of other races, ethnic groups and religions, the more likely we are to see their humanity and the common ground that we all share. Thus, placing a white person in an all-black school as a tutor would help that person come to terms with his or her racial prejudices.
I labor under no delusions that universal conscription of this kind will come to pass—at least not anytime soon. The whole thing would reek, to many Americans, as socialism. And in spite of Bernie Sanders’ admirable efforts, that concept remains at odds with widespread notions of American “freedom.”
The thing is, we are not free. As things stand now, most people are slaves to an oligarchy that finds it useful to pit us against one another, but otherwise encourage us to remain largely passive. Indeed, the power elite does not want the masses to feel like they have a stake in the country, nor a say in its direction. They want to keep us docile and fearful. They want us, as George W. Bush urged after 9/11, to simply go shopping.
This is the great challenge that lies before us: In the coming decades, will we continue down the path on which we have already traveled too far? A path of surrender to an oligarchy which tells us that our job is to stick our thumbs in our mouths while the military-industrial complex sends other people’s children to war, sends jobs overseas, and over-taxes the middle class? Or will be become, once again, a nation of engaged citizens?
The latter is clearly preferable. And I firmly believe that mandatory public service could help us achieve that.