How to unify the country? Ten-HUT!

Universal military service may be the only way to heal the wounds of a country fractured by race and class.


Samuel Freedman
November 19, 1996 2:55PM (UTC)

nearly 40 years ago, Harry Truman proposed that military service be required of every young man in America. The plan did as well in Congress as one of the president's other initiatives — creating a system of national health insurance. Even with memories of World War II fresh, even with the Cold War gathering force, the vast standing army envisioned by Truman was attacked by liberals for being too militaristic and by the armed forces for being too amateurish.
Now, in an America of unchallenged global supremacy, the idea is well worth resurrecting — not so much for military as for domestic reasons. Fissured by race and class, increasingly divided between immigrants and the native-born, deprived of common experience or communal mythology, the United States needs a great equalizer.
Unity cannot possibly be instilled by such divisive tactics as declaring English America's official language or denying immigrants their food stamps. Nor can it be intellectually engineered by adding books by women and minorities to the literary canon. What matters is the exposure of citizens to other citizens on a prosaic, daily basis, in a setting stripped of all the usual distinctions and hierarchies.
A few generations ago, it would have seemed superfluous to even make such an argument. During World War II, 84 percent of American men took part in the military or the defense industries. Even during the peaceful years between the wars in Korea and Vietnam, nearly half passed through the armed forces.
Popular culture underscored the shared experience. The B-17 crew in the movie "Air Force" — mixed by class and ethnicity and yet joined by a single purpose — provided a metaphor for America at its most idealistic. The film "Bataan" went so far as to revise history, depicting racially integrated units even though the armed forces during World War II were still segregated.
Indeed, it was just such segregation that the civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph repeatedly attacked during the 1940s. His pressure ultimately forced presidents Roosevelt and Truman to issue executive orders desegregating defense plants and then the military itself. The modern civil rights movement, then, drew much of its moral force from the notion that military service was the consummate act of citizenship.
All that changed, of course, with the Vietnam War, and not simply because the war grew so unpopular at home. The system of college deferments, in place but used only moderately during both World War II and the Korean War, became a means of mass draft resistance for the privileged. In his authoritative book "Working Class War," the historian Christian G. Appy calculated that 80 percent of the American soldiers in Vietnam hailed from poor or blue-collar homes. Harvard's graduating class of 1970, in comparison, contained just two veterans among its nearly 1,200 men.
The schism that opened during Vietnam along lines of class and race alike has never been healed. If anything, the end of conscription in 1973 and the development of an all-volunteer military has increased it. As of 1995, blacks served in the armed forces at nearly double their proportion in the population. Barely three percent of enlisted men and women held a college degree in a nation where one-quarter of young adults did.
It is no wonder, then, that Bill Clinton's history of avoiding induction didn't prevent him from defeating war heroes George Bush and Bob Dole. Nor, for that matter, did the contortions of Newt Gingrich, Phil Gramm and Rush Limbaugh much damage their standing among conservatives so quick to brand Clinton a draft-dodger. Not serving — leaving the service to the poorer, the darker, the less-educated — is now the American norm. These days what passes for a common experience is the O.J. Simpson trial — which, in fact, demonstrated just how fissured the nation truly is.
But at least Americans recognize the divisive power of race. Class, by contrast, remains a hidden schism. During the last quarter-century, income inequality reached a level unknown since the Roaring Twenties. An American male with a high school diploma has been losing earning power all that time, enduring a Great Depression obscured by the overall growth of the economy. And much of the anxiety, tragically, has spent itself on scapegoating immigrants.
So maybe this bifurcated country could benefit from that moment, well-known to most veterans, when every head is shaved to the skull and every face in the barracks mirror is indistinguishable from every other. What might happen when the would-be investment banker bunks next to the child of steelworkers, when the Proposition 187 advocate cleans latrines beside the new citizen from Oaxaca, when the computer prodigy marches with the manual laborer so easily ridiculed from a distance as roadkill?
"It was the least discriminating of schools," the author Michael Norman has written of the Marine Corps. "Some men rose above their backgrounds, others were betrayed by them. Stripped as we were of class and social station, we measured each other by the same simple yardstick: Was a man dependable and honest, or would he cut and run and steal you blind?"
Admittedly, the prospect of universal military service today would be greeted by the same opposition it drew in Harry Truman's day. But there is precedent for viewing the armed forces as a vehicle for social policy. During the 1960s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed using the military as a kind of jobs program for black recruits. And while his so-called "Project 100,000" never was enacted, the armed forces have (like other public-sector jobs) provided countless blacks with a ladder into the middle class.
It would be foolish to expect miracles from universal military service. Blacks form far less of the officers' corps than the enlisted ranks. The recent rape scandal at a Maryland naval base demonstrates the continuing resistance to women in uniform. It may not even be fiscally practicable to enlarge the armed forces. There is, after all, no convenient Soviet enemy to cite as justification.
No, the only incentive now is the homegrown inequality that lets paupers bear arms in place of the affluent, as in the Civil War — when well-to-do men could purchase replacement soldiers for themselves. At a selfish time in a conservative country, the best social worker around just might be a drill sergeant.

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Samuel Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman has contributed to Salon since 1996. He is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of books including "Letters To A Young Journalist."

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