Congressman Charles Rangel has introduced a measure to require all U.S. citizens or permanent residents aged 18 to 26 to complete two years of compulsory service, inside or outside the military. His stated reasons for this are to insure shared sacrifice among all Americans in the event of a war, and to induce caution in legislators who would know that, in voting for war, their own children might be placed in harm’s way.
Yet Congressman Rangel’s proposal goes far beyond that, chiefly because it would create a gigantic government make-work program for the millions of drafted Americans who would not serve in the military (not to mention the cost of feeding, housing, and managing a huge section of the population). While I do see advantages in inculcating an ethic of service, ultimately I think the problems of a huge, mandatory, government run sector of the economy outweigh any benefits.
On the other hand, there is a more-efficient way to meet Congressman Rangel’s legitimate concerns. The way to increase the proportion of highly educated and relatively well-to-do Americans in our armed forces is to institute Junior ROTC programs in every high school in the country. We should also return the ROTC to America’s most-prestigious college campuses.
The real barrier to the participation of educated, upper-middle-class recruits in our armed forces is cultural. The root of the problem is the deep hostility to our military inculcated by the antiwar movement of the sixties — a hostility now institutionalized at our finest colleges and universities. If we could overcome that cultural barrier, then the sacrifice (and honor) of military service would be more equally shared by all sectors of our country. That, in turn, would mean that legislators would be far more likely to know someone in military service. This, by the way, is not an idea that I have developed for the purpose of countering Congressman Rangel’s legislation. It is something I have already proposed.
The model for the attitude toward the military that we should be seeking is the popular new book, Keeping Faith: A Father Son Journey About Love and the United States Marine Corps. Keeping Faith is the story of Frank Schaeffer, a “Volvo driving, higher education worshiping” novelist, with two children who graduated from top universities. When Frank’s youngest son, John, joined the Marine Corps straight out of high school, this father was forced to recognize and overcome his own prejudice — and the prejudice of his friends and neighbors — against our military. The story of Frank Schaeffer’s newfound pride in his Marine son — and of his struggle against the anti-military biases of his upper-middle-class friends — is the real solution to the problems raised by Congressman Rangel.
So legislators who understand the drawbacks of a compulsory national-service program, but who want to meet Congressman Rangel’s legitimate concerns, can now support wide dissemination of JROTC programs to American high schools, and enforcement of the Solomon amendment, which would return to ROTC to our college campuses.
Another way of augmenting our forces, increasing their quality, and taking recruits from a broader swath of society was only just adopted. President Bush recently signed into law a new, short-term “citizen soldier” enlistment track, a proposal sponsored by Senators Evan Bayh and John McCain. A shorter term of service will draw volunteers committed to careers in the private sector. (And some of these, no doubt, will change their mind and turn toward a military career once enlisted.) Marc Magee and Steven Nider, of the Progressive Policy Institute (the think tank affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council) have laid out the rationale for the citizen-soldier enlistment track. You can also read about the proposal here.
Once the new citizen-soldier initiative is combined with public support for an expanded JROTC and ROTC, it will be that much easier to do what I think we need to do — expand our all-volunteer forces back up to something approaching Gulf War levels. North Korea may already have called our bluff because it understood that our forces were too small to handle Iraq and a Korean crisis at the same time. And an extended occupation of Iraq will stretch our forces still further. With nuclear proliferation likely to precipitate periodic crises for the foreseeable future, we need a larger military. With luck, we will be able to achieve that on a voluntary basis. But to do so, we’ll need to broaden the pool of quality recruits. A national commitment to ROTC and JROTC is the way to do that. And the new citizen-soldier enlistment track will surely help as well.
As I have said on numerous occasions, we cannot and should not exclude the possibility of reviving the draft. I don’t think we’ve begun to see the end of the military problems facing this nation in an era of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. But before we resort to a draft (at which point, a lottery would make more sense than universal national service), we should try to expand our all-volunteer forces. By doing so with the help of a revitalized ROTC and JROTC program, we can insure that Congressman Rangel’s concerns about shared sacrifice are met.