Kinder, Gentler Draft

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 Salon.com, ‘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
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