Drafting Millions, What Wouldn't it Solve? Asks New York Times Op-Ed


Ah, it's that time again: Time for a brief spasm of serious chin-clutching about bringing back the draft or at least some kind of National Service for all these layabout youths.

The most bullshit allies for anti-war folks are without a doubt those who claim that a draft would deal a great blow to U.S. imperialism, because if every 18-to-25-year-old was in peril, wars could not be as easily ignored. This notion popped up in again in yesterday's New York Times in an op-ed by Thomas E. Ricks headlined "Let's Draft Our Kids." Yes, our kids. The collective kids… who are also aged 18 or older.

But this isn't new, of course. Throughout the dark days of Bush, (mostly) Democrats, most notably Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) (who just will not stop trying to draft everybody even though his bill failed 402-2 in 2004. Not to mention, the draft wasn't terribly popular even on the brink of war with Iraq) seemed convinced that conscription would prevent more mistakes like Iraq, and — in classic lefty fashion where equality of misery is the answer — prevent the poor and members of minorities from carrying the heavy burden of American empire. 

But what if we didn't have a volunteer army! What if we just drafted everyone, men and women both? Well, writes Ricks, formerly with The Wall-Street Journal and currently with Center for a New American Security, that would be great for reasons like former commander of U.S. and Allied forces Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants to, and because it would make stuff better.

Writes Ricks:

Unlike Europeans, Americans still seem determined to maintain a serious military force, so we need to think about how to pay for it and staff it by creating a draft that is better and more equitable than the Vietnam-era conscription system.

Here are two good points buried in bizarro-world conclusions. Yes, America could lose some budget weight if it got rid of its many overseas adventures (though defense spending is of course less than what is spent on Medicare and Social Security's combined today), but the solution to that dollar problem is not institute a system that drags millions more into the armed forces. That's fiscally dubious and, even more to the point, totally unethical.

And yes, the draft during Vietnam wasn't "equitable" what with the exceptions for college obviously benefiting those who wanted to or could afford to attend college. But these problems pale in comparison to the fact that that war killed 60,000 Americans and something like 2 million Vietnamese. 

To put it another way, if a serial killer was only targeting men, would anyone start advocating that the killer target women as well, to make things fair? Yes, the draft throughout history was terrible and unfair for men, but the solution to demographically skewed evil is not to level the evil playing field and make it all fair. 

So, what about the completely reprehensible violation of individual rights that a draft — somewhere between indentured servitude and slavery — fundamentally entails? 

Well, Ricks has options for you, three of 'em.

Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don't have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.

Those who don't want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay — teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.

Because lord knows nobody would help old people or teach in low income areas or e speak to people who are different without the Selective Service mandating it and making it more bureaucratic. Still, Ricks isn't done, liberty-lovers get a shout-out:

And libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him — no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.

Props for sneaking in a strangely freedom-friendly suggestion underneath some really awful nonsense, but it's not enough. An opt-out would be great, but instead of, say, a slow rolling back of social services, making people choose between joining the army and getting any government help at all? What about roads? Can these army-hating libertarians use the roads? Or any parks? Or schools? There are a million questions and strings that would come with such an epic change in government and society that would come with this sytem so easily suggested in an op-ed.

Ricks' logic is particularly frustrating because he is occasionally half right. Yep, "America has already witnessed far less benign forms of conscription." It was called Vietnam, Korea, World War II, World War I, and the Civil War. You know, back when we had a draft and were building up the American empire of which Ricks supposedly sort of disapproves. 

Ricks is not being laughed out the media for this suggestion, though most aren't fully jumping on board. Adam Weinstein over at Mother Jones is disappointingly okay with Ricks' suggestions. He says they're "worthy of serious consideration."  Matt Yglesias at Slate scorns the suggestion, noting that raising taxes would be a lot easier way to save government money; but still thinks that a draft is sometimes acceptable. And of course, nobody — nobody — loves the idea of National Service more than perennial Reason favorite David Brooks.

No stranger to the notion that most people care more about budgets than killing or not killing folks abroad, Ricks swears this invitation for still more bureaucracy in American life would save money because:

This program would cost billions of dollars. But it also would save billions, especially if implemented broadly and imaginatively. One reason our relatively small military is hugely expensive is that all of today's volunteer soldiers are paid well; they often have spouses and children who require housing and medical care….

Similarly, some of the civilian service programs would help save the government money: Taking food to an elderly shut-in might keep that person from having to move into a nursing home. It would be fairly cheap to house conscript soldiers on closed military bases. Housing civilian service members would be more expensive, but imaginative use of existing assets could save money. For example, V.A. hospitals might have space.

The pool of cheap labor available to the federal government would broadly lower its current personnel costs and its pension obligations — especially if the law told federal managers to use the civilian service as much as possible, and wherever plausible. The government could also make this cheap labor available to states and cities. Imagine how many local parks could be cleaned and how much could be saved if a few hundred New York City school custodians were 19, energetic and making $15,000 plus room and board, instead of 50, tired and making $106,329, the top base salary for the city's public school custodians, before overtime.

Again, the real problem of overpaid public workers can only be solved by conscripting 19-year-olds to be janitors, with, we have to assume, some entirely new massive bureaucratic measures put in place to make the whole thing run smoothly. And on a more individual basic, if at age 19 I had been drafted to clean up New York City parks, rest assured I would not be "energetic" about my task.

Not to mention, as Richard Cohen at The Washington Post reminds us, the Andrews Sisters ain't gonna sing stirring songs about janitors. Cleaning just doesn't have the same propaganda spark as killing:

It is not possible to take (steal?) 18 months of a young person's life so that he or she performs such menial task. No one is going to write patriotic music for such tasks, no movies will be made — "I Drove for the General," "Top Broom," etc. — and young people are not going to put up with it. Instead of college or vocational training or merely searching for the perfect wave, the government is going to compel janitorial duties.

Both Gen. McChrystal and Ricks, and other advocates for the draft, try to have it both ways; military might and more. Ricks wants a grand new service program that would solve domestic problems, McChrystal wants a "shared experience of service" because "It's not whether they go build roads and parks or that sort of thing. It's what you put inside them, because once you have contributed to something, you have a slightly different view of it."

Ricks wraps up his article with a ghastly appeal to authority mixed with unconvincing anti-war bleeting:

But most of all, having a draft might, as General McChrystal said, make Americans think more carefully before going to war. Imagine the savings — in blood, tears and national treasure — if we had thought twice about whether we really wanted to invade Iraq.

It's a compelling argument that if more people felt the sting of war, so easily ignorable for most Americans, that war would become less likely. Public outrage over Vietnam being motivated by the threat of the draft is one obvious example, but even with a draft, that war lasted more than a decade. A lot of people could die for the hopes that the public would be outraged fast enough to stop the war.

Certainly if warmongering politicians feared for their kids, they might try a little harder to avoid invading another country, but as libertarian consultant Stephen P. Gordon, who served in the Army for ten years, told Reason over email, "If McChrystal thinks that every citizen will be taking the same risk as we consider going to war, he's sadly mistaken. Somehow the rich and the elite will find a loophole; historically they always do."

Not only are men like Ricks, McChrystal, Brooks, and Rangel willing to sacrifice the freedom and maybe the principles and lives of millions of youths, who apparently are communal U.S. property even after they reach the age of majority, but they want to use these men and women to build some delusional picture of mandatory civic coziness that does not and should not exist.

[Addendum] The awesome John Glaser over at Antiwar.com said it better and briefer, hence my strike-through text above. The draft is slavery, period.