Kinder, Gentler Draft

With patriotism sweeping America, is the time right for mandatory national service?

| January/February 2002

America’s war on terrorism has gone a long way toward rehabilitating the idea of patriotism—even among the left. In the months since September 11, we’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of volunteerism and civic activism, plus a nationwide acknowledgment that citizenship has its obligations and that satisfying those obligations brings a sort of nobility to life.
There are even those who believe it’s time to establish some form of compulsory national service as a way of institutionalizing this feeling. 'In the media’s overly emphatic insistence that life has changed . . . it is hard not to read a desperate wish that life really change,' writes author Ann Marlowe in, 'that we become a different, better people, more altruistic, more respectful of each other, and less worshipful of money and success.'
This is not a call for a new generation of military conscripts, Marlowe assures us, but simply for a way that young men and women can serve their country while they learn the value of citizenship, discipline, and diversity. The armed forces would be only one of a range of options, which might include everything from environmental protection and tutoring to fighting forest fires and reading to the blind. And unlike the Vietnam-era draft, everyone of a certain age would be expected to serve—regardless of economic or social background.
'The random mingling of young people of every background could do a great deal to help overcome the increasing fragmentation of our society,' she says. And a one- to two-year service commitment would create a rite of passage that many young men and women of all social classes are currently missing.
Marlowe suggests that recruits would go through a period of basic training that would emphasize physical as well as mental challenges, without the abusive extremes of a military boot camp. Brush-up citizenship courses would include study of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. The trainees performing at the highest levels in all these areas would get their pick of assignments.
And those assignments would take recruits to parts of the country they have never visited. 'What sense is there in singing 'America the Beautiful' if you’ve never been out of a slum in Los Angeles or Chicago or Washington?' Marlowe asks. 'It is much easier to understand the concerns of, say, Western plains dwellers or Maine fishermen if one has been somewhere near them.'
Marlowe’s views on national service will certainly gain some attention in this time of national crisis, when everyone from Dan Rather to aging anti-war protesters say they are ready to sign up for service. But, she admits, her plan 'goes against the grain' of a nation that is obsessed with individual freedom. And it may have little positive effect on the culture. Indeed, if the reason for compulsory national service is to forge a new national identity that values honor, sacrifice, and mutual respect instead of greed and materialism, Marlowe may find herself utterly disappointed with the results.
There’s no question that raw recruits to a national service program would find the first few months of basic training a shock to their systems. They’d be thrown out of old routines and patterns and tossed into challenging situations with strange colleagues in an atmosphere of disciplined possibilities. Even in old-style military boot camps (full disclosure: I did basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in 1970), where there was psychological and physical abuse aplenty, young men were mostly changed for the better.
But cultural distractions were few and far between at boot camp; lives were pared down to the basics. And the further we moved away from that environment and the constraints it forced on our dreams and desires, the easier it was to return to the prevailing culture (or counterculture, in my case). By the time we settled into our first military jobs, we had reverted almost completely to the people we were before we signed up.
There were important differences, of course. We were constrained by military protocol (uniforms, decorum, haircuts, and so on) and a decided lack of freedom, but our obsession with the values Marlowe deplores was hardly affected at all. We watched TV, hungered for the best stereo we could afford, partied like frat boys, and generally fought like hell with the idea that we were serving our country.
Granted, that was a different era, and Marlowe’s new recruits wouldn’t be paid by the Pentagon, but the crux of the matter is choice. Most of us back then wouldn’t have been in uniform had we not been coerced in some way by the draft. Most of those in Marlowe’s national service, I’d venture to say, would not choose to leave their homes, put off their plans, and go to work for peanuts if they weren’t ordered to do so.
The real issue, it seems to me, is Marlowe’s desire to 'institutionalize' the feelings of patriotism and citizenship that have arisen so powerfully since September 11 as a way of 'forging a more democratic, egalitarian, caring society.' Even assuming that such emotions and behaviors could be generated by an ultimately coercive mechanism, there is precious little evidence to indicate such an institution would enhance democracy, equality, or compassion. More likely, we’d end up with another generation burdened by anger, bitterness, and frustration and more than happy to share that with society at large.
Besides, there are already thousands, maybe millions, of Americans working overtime to create the kind of society Marlowe envisions—in grassroots networks, nongovernmental organizations, volunteer programs, and many other settings. Forcing young people into a mammoth program designed by a government that, in its coziness with the corporate agenda, routinely works to crush those lofty ideals seems a less-than-helpful alternative.

Craig Cox is the executive editor of Utne Reader

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