Readers react to a proposal to reinstitute the draft, with civilian service as an alternative.
To the Editor:
David Brooks suggested in a recent column that the country needs a national service program to unite the diverging classes in society. He’s right.
Not long ago, we had one that did so very well. It was the draft. Every young man—regrettably, only men—shared a potential obligation to his country.
Any serious discussion of comprehensive national service means talking about a draft. It’s hard to imagine the Supreme Court upholding nondefense conscription, but if civilian service were an alternative to military duty, the prospects would improve.
The all-volunteer military is exemplary for its professionalism, sacrifice, meritocracy and diversity. (I have a son with two college degrees who enlisted.) But the benefits and burdens need to be shared more widely. There have been too many multiple deployments of regulars and reserves, and if draftees were in the mix once again, perhaps there would be no more wars of choice.
Many domestic needs could be served by a comprehensive national service program. Like the Depression’s best idea, the Civilian Conservation Corps, it could involve people from all classes in repairing our parks, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. It could also bring fresh ideas and talent to teaching, law enforcement, social work and other underpaid public services. The benefits to our national character, as Mr. Brooks suggests, would be immense.
There are past and present models of a national service program in more than a dozen other nations. It is time we gave it a try.
MARTIN A. DYCKMAN
Waynesville, N.C., Feb. 14, 2012
The writer is a retired associate editor and columnist for The St. Petersburg Times.
Mandatory national service, let alone reinstatement of the military draft, would be a giant step backward from America’s general progress toward greater personal freedom. I have little sympathy for so-called libertarians who fulminate about taxes and environmental regulations destroying our freedoms.
But I have a real problem with the government uprooting young people from their homes, careers and families and dictating to them what they must do for the next few years. And if they say no, presumably they would go to jail—the traditional and only effective penalty for draft resistance.
When the fate of the world and the lives of millions are at stake, as in World War II, conscription is justified. But to test out a questionable social hypothesis, proposed and enacted by older people who would no doubt find an excuse to themselves be exempted? No thanks.
New York, Feb. 15, 2012
Although a high school science teacher, I was drafted into the Army in 1968. I was, in my own words, “a reluctant warrior,” but I saw no personally acceptable alternative to answering my country’s call. In 1969 I was commissioned as a lieutenant, and I served in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.
This was a formative time in my life for many reasons, but perhaps most important I learned to work with and lead others from diverse religions, social classes and education levels under the most difficult of conditions. I hope that my comrades in arms learned something from me as well.
Today, much of the nation under 50 has become insulated from such experiences, making it hard to “feel another’s pain.” I strongly support the concept of mandatory national service, not only as a character builder and unifying experience but also as a way of joining together to rebuild our infrastructure and economy and improve our education system.
Guilford, Conn., Feb. 15, 2012
The death of my nephew, Sgt. Will Stacey of the Marines, in Afghanistan last month, on his fourth tour of duty, has led this liberal academic to examine her own assumptions and to consider, deeply and painfully, the implications of an all-volunteer military.
I have concluded that an all-volunteer military, while professional and effective, is bad for the country. It allows the rest of us not to have to think about the war; it allows us not to engage politically; it allows politicians to wage war lightly.
Further, it enables those of us who have chosen not to enlist or serve to think about the military and those who volunteer (and fight and die) in ways that diminish them.
Ultimately, I believe, an all-volunteer military diminishes that very necessary idea that we are all in this nation together, and that there are times our individual comfort and desires must be subordinated for the good of that nation.
Bloomington, Ill., Feb. 15, 2012
Go ahead, print all those level-headed, thoughtful letters about bringing back the draft. I’m betting not many will come from anyone who’s ever been drafted, could be drafted or wants to be drafted. Every time this issue comes up, every time some pundit or politician starts in about the goodness of national service, I think of that old saber-rattler Dick Cheney, who cited “other priorities” when asked why he didn’t serve.
Only someone who has never experienced the attention-focusing qualities of being shot at can write self-assuredly about a draft’s character-building benefits. National service doesn’t build character, it reveals character, and you need character to even consider serving. If you haven’t walked that walk, don’t even think about talking the talk.
Golden Valley, Minn., Feb. 15, 2012
The writer served in Vietnam with the Third Marine Division.
Why shouldn’t we all be expected to devote meaningful time in our lives to doing work of genuine benefit to others? This national service program should apply to a broad age range, should offer some tax advantage to those participating as a sliding alternative to compensation, and should extend to service in other countries as well as other communities, in addition to a local service option for those who do not want to go somewhere else.
Imagine the conversations around the country with everyone posing the same question: How will you fulfill this new responsibility in being a good citizen?
Chapel Hill, N.C., Feb. 15, 2012
The idea of a civilian service program is a distraction from the need for real jobs. Rather than dragging unwilling breadwinners from the working class into forced labor, we need to implement a national job creation program. I guarantee that there will be no shortage of applicants.
Pátzcuaro, Mexico, Feb. 15, 2012
I have always agreed that a comprehensive national service program for 18-year-olds could be of great benefit to America, both for infrastructure maintenance and expansion and for the positive effect it would undoubtedly have on national unity.
But I do not believe that the program should be centered around the military draft. Military service should be part of the plan, but the emphasis should be on civilian service.
Also, it is critically important that every able-bodied young American participate. One of the negative aspects of the Vietnam-era draft was that it allowed the privileged many ways to escape service.
Finally, a speculation: Perhaps the introduction of a large number of relatively unskilled, government-sponsored young workers into the work force would have an impact on at least two of our labor-related woes: large numbers of undocumented immigrant workers who seem to have little difficulty finding jobs, and the lack of empathy for workers shown by many of the corporate and academic elite.
Davis, Calif., Feb. 15, 2012
Not only does the nation face practical problems that youthful energy could help solve, but we also face a profound malaise of meaning. We have no common bonding agent, no leadership capable of igniting us in common cause. We have lost our appetite for the notion of collective pain and collective good. A year or two of mandatory national service would help revive not just a “can do” but a “must do” spirit.
My family and I recently spent a year in Israel, where there is such a common expectation. While there may be problems in a system that socializes youth into protecting a nation and its values, there are great benefits as well. Young people have a sense of purpose and responsibility—they see themselves as having a stake in the future and they value what the nation stands for.
We in the United States would benefit from such a perspective. Mandatory national service is a solution whose time is now.
Seattle, Feb. 16, 2012
The writer is the founder and former executive director of the Grantmaker Forum on Community and National Service.
Mr. Dyckman’s plan to give American young people the choice of serving the nation through the military draft or a national service program is a splendid, outstanding idea. It would help resolve a whole host of problems.
Unfortunately, like all splendid, outstanding ideas in 21st-century America, it will face so much criticism and opposition that it will never be implemented.
ROBERT JOHN BENNETT
Düsseldorf, Germany, Feb. 15, 2012
The Writer Responds
America fought World War II for three years and eight months, less time than has now been spent in harm’s way by troops serving their fourth or fifth combat tours. The loss of Dr. Sainsbury’s nephew is a consequence of having allowed the politicians, as she writes, “to wage war lightly.” When so few families bear the risks, burdens and sorrows of military service—however voluntarily—it means that the majority have invested nothing of themselves. But they cannot escape moral responsibility.
As several of the writers observe, national service could also pay rich domestic dividends. The prospects may be as politically remote as Mr. Bennett asserts, but that should not stop Americans from asking whether the investment might benefit our society more than keeping some people’s taxes low.
As for Mr. Tomczak’s skepticism, I can speak only for myself as a veteran and the father of a soldier in Afghanistan, but I’d wager that support for a draft, if fairly administered, would be highest among those who have served. The old draft gave me the option of enlisting in the Army Reserve, where I learned—as did so many others—that America was made up of more than college boys. We simply had to get along.
I’m convinced from observing government over the ensuing four decades that the loss of this shared experience is largely to blame for the uncivil state of today’s politics.
MARTIN A. DYCKMAN
Waynesville, N.C., Feb. 16, 2012