Bring back the draft

Compulsory, nonmilitary national service would keep our newfound spirit of national unity alive.


Bring back the draft

The Sept. 11 attacks have inspired tremendous volunteerism and charitable giving, demonstrating that Americans know that citizenship conveys obligations, especially in times of trouble. In the last few weeks, we have shown that we see ourselves as fellow-citizens, not merely fellow-consumers. We have shown that we value purposes and goals in life besides the pursuit of gain and status, and that both compassion and bravery might be among them. And in the media’s overly emphatic insistence that life has changed, in the revulsion (how long will it last?) against the cynical commercialism and materialism of much of our culture, it is hard not to read a desperate wish that life really change; that we become a different, better people, more altruistic, more respectful of each other and less worshipful of money and success.

The problem is institutionalizing this knowledge so that even in prosperous, relatively tranquil years like the decade that just ended — times that will likely come again — we remember how to act together, with respect for our common good. While flags are still selling out, while Americans are still asking what they can do for their country, we should give serious thought to forging a more democratic, egalitarian, caring society by restoring the concept of compulsory national service.

Admittedly, this idea goes against the grain. National service has not been proposed by any recent politicians, because memories of the inequities of the Vietnam-era draft are still strong in the generation currently leading our country, and because Americans have historically resented any interference in their freedom of activity. Even American armed forces leaders now prefer a volunteer army for the tasks of contemporary warfare, which demand specialized skills in operating sophisticated weaponry, not the massing of bodies. In Europe, only Austria, Greece, Switzerland, Germany (where conscripts can chose the Zivildienst alternative duty) and the Scandinavian countries have not phased out national (military) services.

But the operant word here is “service.” Instituting compulsory national service is not tantamount to restoring the draft. It need not be confined to military service, as the European models were. In the best implementation of such a plan, the armed forces would be only one among many options for service. But even for those electing this option, national service would be a noncombatant duty. No one would be drafted into combat should a war happen to break out during his or her term.

The goal of this obligation would be to foster national unity and love of country, not to encourage bellicose attitudes or militarism. Conscientious objectors could read to the blind, deliver meals to the housebound or fight forest fires. So could anyone else who found these activities the most meaningful among the options offered. Other options might include environmental protection, tending the national parks, elder care, tutoring disadvantaged children or any number of worthy objectives, as well as the conventional armed forces.

Unlike the Vietnam-era draft, the burden would fall equally on young people of all economic and social backgrounds, race, religion and sexual orientation. Women, like men, would be expected to serve their country, and like men they would acquire the strength and confidence of having passed through a challenging program. Gender equality in this program would accustom young people to expecting and respecting it in the workplace later on.

The period of service would be the same for everyone, and might be usefully set between one and two years — long enough to provide a meaningful experience but not so long as to interfere with lives and career training. When should it be done? While most people would want to get this low-earning period over with sooner rather than later, individual circumstances might make some elect to do it after college, when they may also be able to make a more meaningful contribution. The period of service could be a natural break point for those who want to take time off between high school and job or college, or college and employment, a way for everyone to have access to the wanderjahre not uncommon among the upper middle class. For those in trouble in college or life, performing national service would provide a “time out” without stigma. Perhaps age 25 or 30 should be the cutoff point.

Before choosing the branch of national service they want, which will inevitably lead to some concentrations by race, gender, education, class and so on, everyone would complete a basic training period of a few months. This would include rigorous physical preparation, as in the armed forces, but without the elements of abuse and rote respect for authority characteristic of military discipline. We are training citizens, not conscripts, building spirits rather than breaking them.

Wilderness survival skills, urban rescue work, emergency first aid, self-defense and weapons skills would be among the required topics. The training might also include studies in basic citizenship, such as reviewing the important documents of American history — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights — that many Americans have never learned and most others have forgotten.

What would ensure that the trainees took the program seriously? For one thing, who gets first pick of assignments for the elective part of the program might depend on meeting performance goals. Those who wanted to tag endangered birds in Montana or train on a submarine rather than pick up trash along the highways would have an incentive.

The basic training period would have a number of salutary effects. First of all, given that most Americans will not volunteer for enlistment in the armed forces, they should have some understanding of what those who are willing to lay down their lives in their defense do. Second, it is well known that mastering difficult but not impossible physical challenges builds morale and group cohesion, which is part of the objective. Late adolescence is a difficult time in our society, and having an official rite of passage would probably be psychologically helpful to many young people. Those who have to pass through official trials might be less likely to engage in unofficial self-testing through drunken driving, drug-taking, gang activity and fighting.

As in today’s armed forces, this training should be coed, women and men should be held to the same high standards as much as possible. It would be beneficial to all for America’s young women to measure their worth for once by their strength and endurance rather than their looks, and for young men to realize how brave and tough their female counterparts can be. Mutual respect between the genders is sadly lacking today, and perhaps this period of service might help foster it.

National service basic training would be the crucible in which friendships are formed. The random mingling of young people of every background could do a great deal to help overcome the increasing fragmentation of our society. Currently, it is all too likely that a white, Midwestern suburban girl will encounter inner-city blacks only as voices on rap CDs, that an inner-city Hispanic boy will never be friends with anyone who is going to an Ivy League college, that an upper-class New England boy will pass from Groton to Harvard to Wall Street without ever bonding with a Mexican-American. And so on. This is not healthy for a democracy, nor for a culture.

Then there is the issue of acquainting ourselves not only with each other, but with the beautiful land we share. As an upper middle class Easterner, I had visited Mali before I traveled to Mississippi, India before I saw Oklahoma. For very different reasons, all too many inner-city kids come of age having never been out of their immediate region. Part of national service could mandate working in another area of the country from one’s home. Certainly this might be a requirement for basic training.

Once again, it is much easier to understand the concerns, say, of Western plains dwellers or Maine fisherman if one has been somewhere near them. It is easier to appreciate why we have a National Parks system and conservation laws if one has visited a National Park or wilderness area. Many inner-city kids never have. What sense is there in singing “America the Beautiful” if you’ve never been out of a slum in Los Angeles or Chicago or Washington?

Overall, the experience of national service could make a significant contribution to changing some of the universally deplored aspects of American culture: most obviously the fragmentation and lack of mutual respect but also perhaps the glorification of staged violence, worship of celebrities, greed and consumerism. As the bestseller lists in the years leading up to Sept. 11 hint, for some time now Americans have felt the need to measure themselves against previous generations, notably the so-called Greatest Generation, and to imagine themselves in situations of danger (“The Perfect Storm,” “Into Thin Air,” not to mention those action movies that now suddenly seem to be in poor taste). It is likely that these leisure interests thinly veil a need for greater significance in our lives and ambivalence about the astonishingly safe and insulated lives of most middle-class Americans. They also lead to an unsettling pornography of disaster with overtones of sadism and schadenfreude. If we showed all of our young people a closer look at danger, if we forced them into some form of self-testing, perhaps we would not only give them a sense of greater purpose, but also strip the false glamour from depictions of cruelty and destruction.

Materialism has filled the void in our sense of self, and in the depletion of such values as altruism, public service and honor, we have concentrated solely on accumulating things. By restoring and burnishing the notions of the common good, citizenship and honor, perhaps we’ll diminish our greed. By emphasizing what we share, by fostering egalitarian values, we might increase self-esteem and self-satisfaction. We may find that the media obsession with celebrities and the rich seems very small and craven indeed. “Peace is Hell” is the title of this month’s Atlantic cover story, and however inappropriate this has turned out to be, it conceals a truth we ought to confront: cultures, like individuals, can become neurotic when they have no urgent challenges or goals. While national service is just a piece of the answer, it might bring us closer to becoming the people that we have always wanted Americans to be.

Ann Marlowe is the author of "How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z" and "The Book of Trouble," published last month.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>