Dana Milbank’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Post received some national attention the last week or so. His argument is that universal military service might be the silver bullet we need to fix the dysfunction in Washington. The percentage of members of Congress with military service has declined steadily since a high of 77% in 1977-78 to 19% today. He draws a causal relationship between this political dysfunction and this declining rate of military service, suggesting that Washington politicians have “forgotten a cause greater than self.”
His fix then, is mandatory military service for all women and men over 18. “The costs would be huge,” he argues, but so would the benefits. Look at the Swiss he says, where everyone goes to basic training, then serves periodically thereafter.
Gosh, that makes such good intuitive sense doesn’t it? That is, until you look at some unpleasant facts. First, “the costs would be huge,” looms large doesn’t it? We struggle, supposedly, to arm, train, equip and care for the 1% of Americans who serve now – so adding 99% more to train sounds doable?
To what level would they be trained? A WWII draftee could go from civilian to Marine Rifleman in 30 days, ready to run out of a landing craft and hit the beaches in the Pacific. But that was a long time ago. Modern soldiers are FAR better, and more expensively, trained. I read about an Army Infantryman recently, who, in less than two years in the Army, had gone through Infantry Training, Airborne School, various deployments to major training centers with his unit, deployed to Afghanistan, and he was fairly fluent in Pashtun and learning Farsi. I think he is what we refer to as the “Strategic Corporal,” and he is what the Army and other services work to produce these days. That Marine who hit those beaches is my hero forever, but we need our young enlisted folks today to be capable of far more than that. The idea that you could train a whole nation of 18 year-olds to that level is ridiculous short of total war. If we can’t train everyone to the level necessary for useful service in a modern military, then why do it?
Then there is the REALLY nasty elephant in the room. Scary as it is, many of the 18 year olds Milbank would like to serve are unfit for military service. Because of drug use, felony convictions, or health reasons (like obesity), the military already has a hard time recruiting enough non-college bound high school seniors to fill the ranks. The Army and Marines both granted waivers for “moral” problems like these during the Global War on Terror, but the Army has gone back through the ranks to eliminate some of these folks as they began to downsize. One might argue that a drill instructor is just what some of these young people need to turn their lives around. After all, judges used to defer criminal sentencing if the defendant agreed to join the military. I think that is wishful thinking. Military service has many benefits, personal growth and an appreciation of things larger than one’s self among them. But your core values, who you are as a person, comes from Mom and Dad, or not. Gunny Highway is not going to save our troubled youth.
Then there is the DRAFT. I’m not sure why Milbank thinks we need one if service is universal? But when, pray tell, has the draft ever been administered fairly in this country? During the Civil War, when the wealthy could pay someone to act as cannon fodder on their behalf? Surely we were better at it by Vietnam right? Surely the wealthy didn’t avoid military service in that war? Uh-huh. And speaking of college deferments, is Milbank suggesting there would be none? Expensive? Think about the impact on the nation’s prized university system if all 18-year-old have to serve two years in the military before they go. It would be catastrophic, like the enlistment frenzies that drained colleges of students during WWI.
I do like the idea of universal service, though I think there are lots of ways our youth could serve, and grow, without serving in the military. But I think we should look to incentivize the many opportunities that already exist as voluntary programs. Want a Pell Grant, Scholarship, financial aid, etc? Serve your community in some way first. The military is not a panacea for a lack of parenting, nor a guarantee of selfless governance if only more politicians served.
Finally, I wish journalists would stop making asinine comparisons with the U.S. and countries like Switzerland. I love Switzerland, I even have a Swiss Army knife somewhere – but we should try universal service because it works for the Swiss? Please! Their motto, loosely translated: “No Von ever attacks us, ve are too busy getting rich holding everyone’s money.” That’s about as silly as comparing us to the Finns in education, but that’s a whole ‘nuther discussion.