Tuesday, June 01, 2004The draft has made a dramatic return as a political issue. Folks on the right are considering it because they want more manpower for Iraq, where the lack of troops seems to be one of the major problems. Some on the left want it in order to improve social solidarity, spread the burdens of the war, and maybe mobilize opposition to military adventures. (On the last point, I can say there is some evidence- young people suddenly start paying attention when you use the D word). Others on the left are against the draft because they believe that it is inescapably biased (the rich and connected will always escape service) and that it would militarize society.
Who's right? Well, like most issues in which the left is divided, both positions have some truth. I for one am very conflicted on this issue. To put it simply, before the war in Iraq, I was for a draft of a sort, but right now I am against it. I guess that makes me a flip-flopper :) . Seriously, militarization isn't the real problem. Many Western European democracies have universal conscription, and they ain't so militarized. No, the actual reason I'm opposed to the draft right now is very simple- because I don't trust these right-wing buffoons with it. They would inevitably write the most egregiously awful law possible.
In the abstract I am very much in favor for a draft of some sort, but not for any of the traditional reasons. It is simply that it is unhealthy for a democracy to have a mercenary army- which is what a volunteer professional army is. The creation of such an army was the key factor in the fall of the Roman Republic (here I go again), because the army became a distinct interest in society, and one that happened to have the final authority in adjudicating political disputes. Hence the rise of Caesar.
So I've been running around for several years suggesting the creation of a certain kind of draft, one modelled on that of Israel and Western Europe, where EVERYONE has to engage in national service, not just the military. And this is the crucial point. Every single person aged 18 would for a couple of years have to serve their country, and always outside their home community. No exceptions, no rich folks getting out of it.
This proposal would create an army in the tens of millions, which we do not really need. But note my use use of the word "national service" not "military." Some people would go into the army, but most would be responsible for some other task: public service that need manpower like social work, the peace corps, police work, and teaching. In exchange, at the end of the 2 years every American would be guaranteed some form of education, either college or job training.
If this sounds a lot like Americorps, it's no accident. Clinton's national service plan was one of the best laws he passed (albeit in truncated form- thanks to Republicans). The benefits would be multiple. First, kids would learn a bit about life in some other social context than their own, and also that there is something to care about bigger than themselves. Second, we would be able to educate a lot more people. Third, we would have the manpower to tackle a lot of social problems. And finally, we would end our all-volunteer army, which has always been a real danger to republics. To paraphrase Machiavelli, it is always safer to rely on your own arms than the arms of others.