With breathtaking speed, a campaign to reestablish conscription has been cranked up and set into motion. Its lines of attack are twofold. From conservatives come cries of alarm that the volunteer military is a failure, threatening America's security. From liberals come new calls for "universal service" by American youth.
These two themes are united in a "Youth Services" bill introduced in the House by liberal Republican Pete McCloskey (with three Republican and seven Democratic cosponsors). It would require all 18-year-olds (male and female) to choose among various forms of military or civilian service, ranging from six months to two years. The bill is being considered by both the Armed Services and Education and Labor committees of both houses of Congress.
The military argument has been percolating for many months. Although some military leaders have reported failure to meet some recruiting goals, top officials from Defense Secretary Brown on down concede that the volunteer system is "working" under present peacetime conditions. But a Pentagon study released in December complains that in wartime the lack of a functioning Selective Service system would prevent rapid mobilization. Consequently, the Carter administration is pushing hard for either a national data bank of all 18- to 26-year-olds, compiled from IRS and Social Security records, or a resumption of compulsory registration of all 18-year-olds.
But that's not enough for hawks like Senators John Stennis and Sam Nunn. Calling the volunteer military "the weakest link in the vital chain of our national security," Stennis in February urged that it be scrapped and replaced with full-scale conscription. "The absence of a machinery for registration and selection…means that we have no means for mobilizing rapidly the millions of persons we would need in the event of a wide-scale war," he said. Moreover, the volunteer system has failed to attract recruits in the numbers and quality needed, he charged.
Before considering the broader implications of conscription, let's deal with these technical military points. To begin with, today's volunteer system is providing a higher quality of manpower than did the draft. What may be bothering Stennis, Nunn, and other southern conservatives is the changes in composition of that force. Participation by blacks has nearly doubled over the past decade, and today's black recruits are better educated than their white counterparts. Further, women now make up over five percent of all military personnel, compared with a mere one percent a decade ago.
There is a potential shortage of 18- to 26-year-old males looming ahead, because of the declining birth rates of the last 15 years. But studies by both the Rand Corporation and the Brookings Institution have found that just by opening presently restricted noncombat jobs to women, the military could meet one-third of its total personnel needs with no decrease in effectiveness. That's more than enough to cover the 25 percent male shortfall projected for the 1990s.
As for rapid mobilization, major strengthening of the Reserves and National Guard could accomplish this goal more effectively than rounding up hordes of untrained youths. But any such expansion should be undertaken with great caution, paying heed to the dangers of an enlarged military machine. The Selective Service mechanism proved an all-too-convenient way for Lyndon Johnson to maneuver the United States into an undeclared war in Asia. Do we really want to give Jimmy Carter the means—even without conscription or registration—to provide American forces for "widescale wars" around the world?
Far more dangerous than the military argument, however, is the rhetoric of those advocating universal service. The Committee for the Study of National Service, in its 143-page report released in February, said that "the nation's social, economic, educational, environmental, and military needs, including the need of our society to regain a sense of service, together make a case for moving toward universal service for American youth" (emphasis added).
California's Jerry Brown, in response to a question on the draft from a Georgetown University student, had this to say:
We really do have an obligation to our country. The concept of service—not to the "me" generation or to the "now" generation—but service to the country and the future, is essential. Now we serve the country not just by marching around with a rifle, but by bringing hope back to the cities, by comforting the sick, by renewing the forests and the rivers, and by bringing friendship to other countries.
And a November "Sound Off" question on mandatory universal service in Nation's Business, the official publication of the US Chamber of Commerce, resulted in "almost universal acclaim" for the idea, based on reader responses. One wrote that, "Some form of service to our country should be an obligation of all who benefit from living here. Universal service would be an equitable way of exacting that obligation—a kind of service tax." Added another, "Universal service would restore the sense of duty all of us owe this free country."
That views of this sort can be readily accepted must give us pause, amidst all the rejoicing about America's new "antigovernment" mood. Have we forgotten so soon the arguments against conscription that were raised so eloquently barely a decade ago? Namely, that the rights to life and liberty are inalienable. As Senator Mark Hatfield wrote in 1967, "Personal liberty is not a privilege. It is not a concession granted by government that must be paid for by military service." Nor, we must add, by civilian service.
To compel men and women to comfort the sick, restore the forests, or repair the cities is forced labor, no matter how worthy the goal. It matters not whether the period of one's life so exacted is six years or six months or six weeks, or whether the pay is the $288 a month paid to US Army recruits or the $3 a month paid Soviet army conscripts. The principle is the same: involuntary servitude.
Here is an issue that will identify the fair-weather friends of liberty. Conservatives like to think of themselves as advocates of freedom. Where will the American Conservative Union stand on universal service? Liberals like to be seen as champions of civil liberties. Where will the ACLU stand?
There can be no compromise on so fundamental an issue as the right to life and liberty. As one of America's foremost opponents of conscription and involuntary servitude, Daniel Webster, put it in 1814: "The question is nothing less than whether the most essential rights of personal liberty shall be surrendered and despotism embraced in its worst form."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The “National Service” Menace".