When I was growing up, one of the many things my dad would talk about that I had little comprehension of was “the draft” — military conscription. Mention a draft to folks in my generation or millennials, and many of us think about football or basketball. Yes, most are aware that selective service existed in the not-too-distant past, but the realities of having friends and family members called into active duty are completely foreign to younger Americans.
Aside from my dad’s Vietnam-era stories, I’ve never given much thought to the draft. That is, until I read Dana Milbank’s Thanksgiving 2013 Washington Post column, in which he argued for a return of mandatory military service. Milbank’s idea isn’t anchored in war hawk sentiment. Instead, he sees selective service as a way to remedy many of the ills plaguing our dysfunctional Congress. He says, “Because so few serving in politics have worn their country’s uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest.”
In early March, Milbank’s proposition appeared in a Harper’s Magazine article, where it was presented along with multiple other pro-draft arguments — paradoxically, none of which were pro-militarization.
Many supporters of required military enlistment frame their positions from an antiwar stance. Journalist Thomas E. Ricks says our all-volunteer force “has made it all too easy for our nation to go to war.” Echoing that sentiment is historian and Army veteran Andrew J. Bacevich, who believes the chasm separating the armed forces from civilians, including members of Congress, makes it too easy for the military to be “used recklessly.” He claims that if we “had our sons and daughters serving and likely to be sent into harm’s way, we would exercise greater caution.”
Personally, I think it would be a stretch to say a bonafide conscription movement is underfoot. However, if a draft guarantees to better our national disposition and reestablish a sense of patriotic selflessness, I might be persuaded to slap a pro-conscription bumper sticker on the back of my car.
But if we’re going to consider reinstituting military conscription as a way to remedy our political and foreign policy ills, what about the introduction of another type of draft to correct flawed domestic policy and social deficiencies? If the idea of armed forces selective service ever starts to gain traction, I’m going to launch an additional movement: a mandatory two-year enlistment in domestic social services.
Milbank argues that the lack of military service among today’s members of Congress — 19 percent of whom have served in the armed forces — has negative consequences that have crept into innumerable policy decisions. That sure is a low percentage, but I’d like to know how many of our highest elected officials have any background in the social services sector. I’m going to guess that 19 percent is an enviable number.
I’d like to know how many of our congressfolk have worked a Department of Children’s Services foster care case, or the number who’ve had dinner with an immigrant family to learn why they came to this country and what they want to contribute, or how many have coached an adult GED student trying to craft a better future for his or her loved ones. Sadly, I bet we’d be lucky if the percentage of our legislators who’ve actually experienced how the “other half” lives hits double digits.
If Milbank’s thesis about military service and congressional dysfunction is true, I’ll argue that lawmakers — liberal and conservative — who have never worked directly with the underserved and disadvantaged probably don’t have the necessary perspective to legislate properly on those people’s behalf.
But since we’re talking about a nationwide draft, we can find ourselves in this, too. Imagine the shared empathy we’d have for fellow Americans if we’d spent time visiting each other’s homes and pulling each other from struggles. In addition to having more practical social policy, I bet we’d be less judgmental, more compassionate and less prone to think of others, well … as “others.”
A civic engagement advocate and history teacher, David Allen Martin writes from Chattanooga.