A Draft Won't Fix The Civil-Military Divide — But This Plan Just Might

Over 20 Soldiers raise their right hands and recite the Oath of Allegiance to become United States citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the Soldier Support Center, April 26, 2016..
U.S. Army photo

When discussing societal ills, people start talking about mandatory national service as a solution. A lot of this comes from the usual crowd of misanthropic veterans who think all of today's lazy and entitled Millennials and Gen Zers need military service to whip them into shape.

Mandatory service won't fix this country. But voluntary service just might.

To see why mandatory service isn't a great idea, start with the term “mandatory." It implies that everyone reaching a certain age will have to do something. In the last census, taken in 2010, there were just under 14 million people between 18 and 21 in the United States. Assuming a national service period of about two years, that would make about nine million people in such a program at any given time.

Even a one year term would mean over four million. Just for context, the total number of people in the U.S. military, including the guard and reserves, is just under two million. Some might say that various exemptions would lower that number, but that kind of defeats the whole purpose, doesn't it?

Assuming that the amount of supervision required is at least that of the officer-to-enlisted ratio of the Marine Corps (the least officer-supervised of the services), it would mean an additional federal workforce of nearly a quarter-million bureaucrats just to keep them in line. Call that massive program socialism or fascism depending on your bias, but it hardly seems like a good use of government resources.

With that in mind, even a modest one year mandatory national service program would require finding meaningful work for a group more than twice the size of the entire U.S. military. What the hell would that many people do?

Be in the military? Doing what, exactly?

The modern military doesn't have that many jobs just pointing rifles in the same direction anymore. Even if it did, each person in the military costs on average about $137,000 a year. That kind of money had better buy a whole lot of civic responsibility.

But, as is frequently pointed out, 71% of military-age youth aren't qualified for the military anyway. Why not put them to work doing mandatory civilian service instead? It's great to picture 19-year-olds selflessly tutoring underprivileged children or building a wall on the Mexican border, depending on your ideological bent.

But in reality, most 18-year-olds aren't qualified for meaningful work. Most of those conscripted high school graduates would be digging holes to fill with dirt from other holes. Lest you think that perhaps these young conscripts might revitalize our aging infrastructure, reflect on the fact that there are already things called construction companies. They don't want slave labor building roads. Even if we did turn young people towards shoveling asphalt, it hardly seems the character-building exercise that mandatory service advocates promise.

Voluntary service, on the other hand, is of great benefit to those who do it. The military already provides a place for those so inclined to serve their country in arms. But plenty of people may be open to other opportunities to serve.

There's a fair amount of study regarding nudges, where fairly small incentives can cause large changes in group behavior. The military does this already. For all its talk about selfless service, the military relies a lot on certain benefits to bring people in.

What if the Peace Corps offered the Post-9/11 GI Bill? How about AmeriCorps or Teach for America? For those who already have degrees, why not allow using the GI Bill to retroactively pay down college debt after individuals complete a prescribed period of service?

These programs currently have only a tiny percentage of the military's end strength. Their costs are trivial, and the growth capacity is huge. More importantly, they do not significantly displace other private or public agencies, but still accomplish a lot of good in the world, which is what service is supposed to be about.

Those programs do typically require additional education beyond high school to join. That said, aren't more educated youth the “elite" that currently aren't performing military service? Isn't targeting them for voluntary service an effective way to inculcate a culture of selfless service among future leaders of America?

Going beyond the GI Bill, there are other benefits currently offered only to military vets that might entice young Americans into other forms of service. The VA home loan benefit is probably the biggest, but things like job placement and federal hiring preference would be easy to provide without a huge budget outlay. These incentives would go a long way.

A relatively small investment could greatly expand alternative service programs. With a little creativity, there could be even more outlets for the young adults of America to serve. In exchange, we'd have a lot more people who have done some public service and carry those experiences forward for the rest of their lives.

Many vets jealously guard their unique benefits from military service as distinct from those doing public service in a civilian role. But if a military member spending an entire enlistment in the continental U.S. rates full military and VA benefits, certainly so does a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote region of the developing world. The key is that we encourage, or nudge, people to improve society and themselves at the same time.

The baseline tour of service is currently two years in the Peace Corps and Teach for America. It could be four in order to earn military-equivalent benefits, or those benefits could be pro-rated. Regardless, expanding the opportunity for public service would be a great thing, not just for the individuals doing the service, not just for the people they serve, but also for society.

Some might say that adding military-type incentives to these other programs might make them more mercenary, that people would join for the wrong reasons. That same critique should then be leveled at the military. Just like the military, some people would join for the benefits, but stay for a lifetime of service. If someone joins Teach for America to get money for a master's degree, but then decides to spend a lifetime teaching, it's money well spent.

After World War II, the original GI Bill made education available to the masses, changing America for the better. Social mobility in America has stagnated for years. Providing a new merit-based opportunity for more people to raise themselves up is a win for everyone, increasing GDP while improving our national culture at the same time. Some people complain about young people wanting free college.

Fine. Let's provide them more ways to earn it.

Too many people seek to make service an exclusive club that only a few can belong to. If we truly want to make this country better, we need to made public service an accessible option for everyone.

In this June 7, 2009 file photo Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) points to a player behind him after making a basket in the closing seconds against the Orlando Magic in Game 2 of the NBA basketball finals in Los Angeles. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. He was 41. (Associated Press/Mark J. Terrill)

Beloved basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven other people were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California on Sunday. Two days earlier, Army Spc. Antonio I. Moore was killed during a vehicle rollover accident while conducting route clearing operations in Syria.

Which one more deserves your grief and mourning? According to Maj. Gen. John R. Evans, commander of the U.S. Army Cadet Command, you only have enough energy for one.

Read More
A screenshot from a video appearing to show the wreckage of an Air Force E-11A communications aircraft in Afghanistan (Twitter)

A U.S. E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft crashed on Monday on Afghanistan, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has confirmed.

Read More
U.S. Marines with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines assigned to the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) 19.2, observe protestors toss Molotov Cocktails over the wall of the Baghdad Embassy Compound in Iraq, Dec. 31, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Kyle C. Talbot)

One person was injured by Sunday's rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Task & Purpose was learned. The injury was described as mild and no one was medically evacuated from the embassy following the attack.

Read More
The front gate of Dachau (Pixabay/Lapping)

At age 23 in the spring of 1945, Guy Prestia was in the Army fighting his way across southern Germany when his unit walked into hell on earth — the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

"It was terrible. I never saw anything like those camps," said Prestia, 97, who still lives in his hometown of Ellwood City.

Read More
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) underway on its own power for the first time while leaving Newport News Shipbuilding, Newport News, Virginia (USA), on April 8, 2017. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ridge Leoni)

Against a blistering 56 mph wind, an F/A-18F Super Hornet laden with fuel roared off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford and into the brilliant January sky.

No glitches.

Chalk up another step forward for America's newest and most expensive warship.

The Ford has been at sea since Jan. 16, accompanied by Navy test pilots flying a variety of aircraft. They're taking off and landing on the ship's 5 acre flight deck, taking notes and gathering data that will prove valuable for generations of pilots to come.

The Navy calls it aircraft compatibility testing, and the process marks an important new chapter for a first-in-class ship that has seen its share of challenges.

"We're establishing the launch and recovery capabilities for the history of this class, which is pretty amazing," said Capt. J.J. "Yank" Cummings, the Ford's commanding officer. "The crew is extremely proud, and they recognize the historic context of this."

Read More