Draft & universal service
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Page updated 25-Dec-2008

Categories: military

This is a talkback I wrote to a Seattle P-I article predicting a return of the draft. All the talkbacks are here; mine is under the name "sluggo". The article discusses the so-called "back-door draft" under which soldiers are being sent back for repeated tours past their contract end date ("stop loss"), and now are even being recalled years after they left the military under a never-until-now used emergency provision. How long until we have a full draft, the author asks. The talkbacks discuss how likely this is (not), whether the Iraq war is the kind of national emergency the provision was intended for (no), whether our foreign policy is too big for our military (yes, so the former needs to shrink or the latter needs to grow), and whether universal service would be beneficial. It's this latter point that I address. (This is slightly reworded from the original.)

We need universal service, but not in the current political climate. I grew up in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam and have never served. My attitude at 18 (1984) was, "I'll go if I'm drafted because I can't stay home while my brothers are forced to go, but I'm not going to volunteer because I don't trust the government not to abuse its power (=create artificial wars)." Now I still don't trust the government but I wish I had received some of the military training. Also, our nation has become a land of selfish consumers. Many youths have never known discipline, never had to work for a common good. Gangs and bullies run free because most people are afraid to confront them and tell them to get in line. In the 40s and 50s, most people did have military experience or somebody in their family did. Society kept everybody in line and people volunteered in their community. That only happened because a critical mass of people had the skills and discipline to do it -- which came from their military experience.

A modern universal service would have both military and peacenik options, something for everybody. Probably involved in domestic infrastructure (*cough* New Orleans *cough*) and humanitarian activities. Perhaps a choice between lower-level ("safe") and higher-level ("unsafe") militiary options, and international choices both military and nonmilitary. Switzerland is also a good model, and (more controversially) Israel.

It really needs a group of people from the current military to design this. I keep hoping somebody with a greater insight than me would step up and spearhead this. There are some proposals floating around DC, but none that has gotten serious consideration.

The problem in the current political climate is the president would be too tempted to divert these resources into an artificial war. We need some kind of constitutional protection to prevent the president from misleading us into war, or deploying the troops for political or personal reasons. A soldiers' veto seems like the best way. Hold a military election and let the people who will be putting their lives on the line -- and have the most realistic knowledge -- confirm that this war is necessary and winnable.

I thought some more about this military election thing. It should be redone every three years so that no four-year administration can escape at least one reauthorization vote. If it had been done for Iraq, the 2006 vote would have been much different than 2003. Not saying it would necessarily be "nay", but we know a lot more now than we did then. Of course in the middle of a conflict you can't just have an up-or-down vote: those may be the most extreme and disasterous alternatives. Instead there should be a multi-way choice covering all the major policy directions currently being discussed in the public arena. Not saying that should be 100% binding on the politicans, but some mechanism would have to ensure the result gets "high consideration". And something would have to ensure the administration doesn't meddle with the vote the way it has been threatening soldiers who speak to the media against the administration's policy. Just see what the soldiers really think and let the politicans put that in their pipe and smoke it.

On a related note, we also need to encourage more Americans to travel abroad for nonmilitary purposes. Australians frequently spend a few years travelling the world or living in another country, but 80% of Americans don't even have a passport. This leads to unrealistic views about what the rest of the world is like, the US's role in the world, and how the US is viewed -- especially given the lack of international coverage in the mainstream media (only things directly affecting the US or a head of state are covered). If more people would just go anywhere, it would make a difference. More student exchange programs, industry group exchanges, and the like would help. In this light, the rising cost and decreasing security of international air travel could not have come at a worse time. Something needs to be done about this because having more Americans travel abroad is in our national interest.

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Sluggo is Mike Orr, a helluva friendly guy in Seattle. Email me if you have feedback.