Politics & Policy

Rethinking National Service

Ten years after 9/11, we should consider mandating some form of national service.

One of the most important questions we should be asking ourselves ten years after 9/11 is more likely to generate guilty shrugs than nods in agreement: Why did no one in authority ever mobilize the American people? In those early days when armies were gathering for war, the nation was summoned not to sacrifice but to return to the shopping malls. Inevitably, the burdens of that war fell on the few instead of the many. A decade later, we the many are running out of troops, taxpayer dollars, and, apparently, any original ideas. Returning to the draft is not the answer, but we are overdue for a serious conversation about linking national service to education benefits.

The memoirs of Pres. George W. Bush, his secretary of defense, his secretary of state, and now his vice president collectively number thousands of pages. These tomes reveal that there was little questioning of our basic assumptions after 9/11, such as whether our all-volunteer military could sustain such a long conflict. Unlike other wars, Americans fought this one by simply sending other people’s kids. Less than one percent of Americans have ever served in uniform throughout an entire decade of war. Today, you are more likely to know a resident of North Dakota, our least populated state, than a soldier on active duty in the United States Army. (With the reserves added in, both populations number about 600,000.)

Our volunteer, professional army dates from the early 1970s and was reduced to present levels after the Cold War ended. Congress, charged by the Constitution with raising armies, agreed to a key assumption: The National Guard and reserves primarily exist to buy time when the nation goes to war. While the reserve component has day-to-day missions (e.g., disaster relief after Alabama tornadoes and Hurricane Irene), in wartime it provides the only effective means to transform the nation’s youth into soldiers. But after 9/11, we simply drafted the reserves and National Guard. Despite the national emergency, the nation’s youth were left free to attend college and generally do their own thing. To this day, wearing a uniform on an Ivy League campus is more likely to mean that you’re acting in the senior play than serving your country.

The result has been a chronic shortage of American military manpower. While volunteer forces are the most effective way to maintain a professional military, they cost money at every step from enlistment to retirement. With those forces pared to the bone, you handle increased operational requirements (surges are one example, tsunami responses another) either by increasing the length or the number of foreign deployments. That is exactly how we have fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

With soldiers routinely deployed on multiple combat tours, the effects on them and their families are now unmistakable. Divorce rates, a traditional indication of manpower distress, have skyrocketed, along with suicide rates, among soldiers. In July, we lost more soldiers (32) to suicide than to the Taliban. Equally insidious are the long-term effects of post-traumatic-stress disorder, the subject of a recent book, Combat Trauma. Written by 15 veterans of Vietnam (not Iraq or Afghanistan), their symptoms have endured for 30 years. Their conclusion was even more startling: PTSD is like radiation. The more combat time you endure, the greater your risk of PTSD. And remember: Those soldiers experienced only a single year of Vietnam combat, not the three to five years quickly becoming the American military standard.

It is hardly surprising that our military chiefs have unanimously tried to protect their expensive and superbly capable, but scarce and badly overused, manpower resources from future budget cuts. They have a point, but the necessary economies cannot come from within DOD without rethinking our national manpower policies. As the dean of American military sociologists, Charles Moskos, once said, “American education policy is like having the GI Bill but without the GI.” So why not begin there?

Here are some basic ideas to consider:

1. The draft worked well in the 20th century, but in the 21st we need to create a graduated system of national service. The education benefits now granted more or less freely could be tied to the completion of national service after age 18. Each young adult would be required to complete a year of service in return for enjoying the lifetime privileges of American citizenship. Completing that minimum requirement would also determine future eligibility for education benefits.

2. While there should be many different pathways of national service — particularly civilian service and homeland defense — the military should remain primarily a volunteer force. A well-trained military, capable of instant readiness for worldwide deployment, is a priceless national asset demanding full-time career professionals.

3. The greatest beneficiaries of a system of tiered military service would be the reserve component, repurposed to become the bulwark of homeland defense — and only homeland defense, ending the current use of the reserves as a manpower slush fund for foreign deployments. The reserves would still be volunteers, a tradition dating back to the Minutemen. But their terms of enlistment could vary from the one-year national-service minimum to longer periods — which would merit greater educational benefits.

The debate over manpower and national service is at least ten years overdue. The basic principle, however, was established in Philadelphia in 1787: Defense in a democracy was never meant to be a spectator sport.

— Col. Kenneth Allard (Ret.) is a draftee who became dean of the National War College. A former NBC News military analyst, he lives in San Antonio and writes frequently on national-security issues.


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