The Senate recently passed an updated GI Bill, sponsored by Dem veep candidate du jour Jim Webb. (I have grave concerns about Webb on the ticket, but I'll send you here for now and spare you my thoughts today). There is a raging debate about the effects of the GI Bill on military recruitment and retention. Its GOP foes, including John McCain, argue that providing educational benefits will lead some soldiers to decide (quite sensibly, in my opinion) not to reenlist. But other analysts contend that the payoff of the benefit will actually assist the military in recruitment.
But as I see it, the debate fundamentally misses the point. The all-volunteer military is one of the most inequitable institutions in American life. Why? Because it puts the burden of military service on those with the fewest resources and limited job opportunities. Not surprisingly, many military men and women come from the hardest-hit Rustbelt towns, from inner cities, and from down-at-the-heels rural areas.
Back when I was a teenager, I opposed the draft (which was not in place at the time) and the Carter administration's introduction of mandatory draft registration. My position was principled: it grew out of my youthful libertarianism (I've grown out of it) and my opposition to Reagan-era foreign policy (a position that I still hold). I was, in large part, wrong, even if my reasons were usually right.
It is an unpopular position in the circles in which I travel, but I think it's the only just one: to require universal service, with a non-military public service option for conscientious objectors. Here are my reasons.
First and foremost: It is unfair for the least advantaged to bear the greatest burdens in service to the country. To be sure, in nearly every period of history (most notably during the Vietnam War), the well-heeled and well-connected have found all sorts of ways of passing the burden to the poor and working-class. Historian Christian Appy's book, Working-Class War, is a powerful reminder of the costs that blue-collar Americans bore in the debacle in Southeast Asia. Appy points out that, in contrast to World War II and Korea, 80 percent of those who served in Vietnam came from blue-collar or poor families.
Second: Service to society will play a small, but not inconsequential, role in fostering a sense of collective responsibility among young people. Right now, that sense of commonality is sorely lacking, especially among the best-off Americans who have spent most of the last forty years steadily withdrawing from the public sector. To be sure there are glimmers of hope. Over the last decade, I have witnessed a massive growth in "community service" programs at my university and elsewhere. These programs are a starting point, even if most students see service primarily as a vehicle for self-improvement or credentialing. It allows them to rationalize their privilege, to engage in paternalistic forms of uplift, and, in the process to pad the resume. Don't get me wrong: I'm not opposed to community service programs, if they are well-organized and involve more than superficial, feel-good, condescending programs. But we need more.
Third: A broader base of service in the military will give more Americans a stake in the outcome of wars. The intense antiwar movement during the 1960s was fueled, in large part, by the immediacy of the draft. Hundreds of thousands of students marched against the war because they knew that their lives--or the lives of their brothers, husbands, lovers, sons, friends--were at stake. No more. Hardly any of my students know even a single person who has been stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan. And even fewer know anyone who was injured or died there.
There is a great scene in Michael Moore's film, Fahrenheit 911, when the Rustbelt-born filmmaker asks members of Congress whether or not they would send their children to fight in Iraq. Most of them stammered or looked at Moore like he was crazy. But they had few compunctions about sending other people's children into harm's way. Perhaps they would have done that anyway--certainly the past offers many grim examples of chicken hawks willing to sacrifice others for their own delusions.
Universal service will be no panacea, but it's better than what we have in place now.