There’s a season for it–the thinkpieces, the brave suggestions, the crawling out to the edge of the limb and saying, yes, I have the answer, we should force America’s youth to come together and serve in some collective cause.
In spite of the right’s fondness for military service and such pageantry, it’s usually the left or the more accurately, the muddy, authoritarian center that suggest this kind of thing. Progressives worry over wars, but they don’t worry enough over the civilian casualties in other countries, or the blowback in America. Sometimes they become overly concerned, insteadn about how poor people join the military, and rich, privileged people don’t. Sometimes they even pull up an extra deep argument, dust the dirt off of it, and say, gee, maybe the draft can stop wars! Charlie Rangel spent decades in congress trying to bring back conscription for that very reason.
And then the thought leaders–the columnists who have to waste space in the New York Times or various blogs each week–they need to get in on this brainstorming. America is broken. America is fractured and overly politicised, and we could be on the brink of a God damned civil war. This is dangerous. Also dangerous is the fact that young people aged, say, 18-25, just keep on choosing their own paths in life. Sometimes they get married or do important things that contribute to society’s togetherness. But sometimes they just eat exotic food and become polyamorists or or Instagrammers. We have to do something.
Why not bring back the draft? What was once the weight on the back of every young man–the fear that he would have to kill or be killed for a broadly-defined goal of patriotism, nationalism, service, whether he wanted to or not–is now gone. Youths are not grinding themselves down under nationalist knapsacks nearly as much as they did before, in the days that were good.
Sometimes a writer, politician, thinker, considers bringing back a draft without any kind of spit shine on it. Just, make those damn kids join the military the ways their pappies did, so they stop playing video games! Plus, after 58,000 of those kids died in Vietnam–along with about two million Vietnamese–we stopped the war! The draft works!
Most advocates for this tepidly-argued collectivism, however, take a different tact. They want it to be “national service” instead of mean old conscription. They are happy to offer options and choices, provided that engaging in this service is a necessary part of graduation from highschool or college. At best they are the movie theaters who said you were free to defy the Hays Code if you had your own theater, and weren’t run out of town by moralists, and didn’t want to hire any known American actors, etc. At worse, they are mini dictators who, even if they don’t realize it, are simply deeply offended by the fact that American young people are making their own choices and living their own lives. They are central planners not of cities, but of human action and motivation.
Bloomberg View’s Noah Smith is one person who has no self-awareness about how many stock writers from Thomas Friedman to David Brooks, to this guy who wrote a letter, and who used to be a columnist, have already suggested national service as a cure for the nation’s ills, both real and imagined. Yes, as Smith notes, people in South Korea and Israel and other places are made to join the army. There is also what amounts to mandatory reserves training in places like Switzerland. Though all of those coercive policies are bad, certainly it’s a little more of a moral quandary to serve in Israel and be a real, fighting soldier, than it is to be made to do basic training in Switzerland, then come home and go back to your normal life (unless and until Germany invades).
In America, the draft was put to rest in 1973. Men are still made to register with the Selective Service, however. Though the changes of the US bringing back a military draft are not high, thanks to the potential outcry, as well as the technical skills needed for most army recruits in 2017, that registration still hangs over the heads of every young male citizen. Your choices are on loan from the military, it says. You can have your life for now, but if we need it, you will know.
Smith and his ilk are terrified of a polarized nation. At its worst point, yes, screaming cable news divides could transform into real wars. But as scared as we all are of fighting with relatives on Facebook, or being trolled by Twitter Nazis, that kind of unpleasantness is far from a real conflict as you can get, until it actually isn’t (and it currently is).
Furthermore, Smith happily suggests that his plan would lead to “national unity.” He gives a startlingly shallow nod to the libertarian argument against coercive national service by saying, uh, people could get out of it if they wanted to become high school drop-outs. He doesn’t actually counter the Milton Friedman quote he mentions, which dubs drafted soldiers “slaves.” Smith simply says, well, libertarians might object to this grand scheme, but they are wrong. Best of all, he pays not even a whisper of lip service to the fact that all of human history teaches us that “national unity” can have some deadly side effects.
More paragraphs could be devoted to flipping Smith’s logic over, and then prodding its insides. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have enough to bother with. He has the fact that the country is, it seems, at odds. Occasionally, being at odds leads to violence and even wars. And also young people don’t work that much, and Smith has a chart to prove that. Ergo, national service it is.
This is a bad piece. It’s a weak, lazy spasm towards collectivism to solve the nation’s problems (real, imagined, and exaggerated). The draft and national service are blessedly unpopular. Rangel retired from congress without his pet project of bringing it back ever coming close to fruition.
And yet, Smith’s piece deserves a response if only because it encapsulates a dangerous, monstrously huge idea–that the individual belongs to the state. More particularly, the young individual of a certain age belongs to the state. With all of our concern over being bogged down in wars, or filling our prisons coming into the public sphere, this notion that we have to suffer or struggle in order to grow up remains. Millennials are the worst, right? They’re lazy, and they’re entitled. And yet, they’re rarely the ones demanding that the younger generation be pressed into servitude.
This attitude has killed. It has killed thousands and thousands of people. It is Teddy Roosevelt worrying about a soft nation that had tamed the West. It is the fear that American manhood would atrophy without natives to shoot, so let’s go to the Philippines, to Cuba, anywhere where our young men can grow strong on righteous suffering and contrived acts of bravery. We mustn’t let them turn feminine and soft.
Political polarization is a concern. At its peak, it can destroy a country. But forcible national unity destroys individuals, and has hacked its way across the world in conquest and conflicts for centuries. Placing youth into the mouth of the nation for sacrifice is swapping the potential problem of polarization for the definite one of unification–and that’s a problem much more likely to lead to tyranny and war.