I never imagined for a moment that I would take seriously any suggestion that we reinstate the draft but a recent statement by retired Army General Stanley McChrystal has given me pause. At the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, he made the following statement which, to my mind, deserves our collective reflection and consideration:
"I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn't be solely represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population. I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game."
And who has skin in the game? Certainly not the families of our most strident pro-war politicians and their most vocal supporters. It is noteworthy that very few current members of Congress, including the super-patriots, have children or other family members in the military. What about Mitt Romney who wants to be Commander-in-Chief and constantly spouts belligerent neocon rhetoric? What has he or his six able-bodied sons done to protect and defend us? During his student days, Mitt did speak out forcefully against those demonstrating against the Vietnam War, calling them unpatriotic. What did patriotic Mitt do then -- immediately enlist? Well. no. What he did was spend two years in France sharing his religious beliefs with the presumably grateful French. And the six sons? Not a uniform or medal in sight. We can be pretty sure, then, that Commander-in-Chief Romney and his neocon allies will continue sending other people's children to fight their wars.
But they are not the only problem with an all-volunteer military. Unlike the two World Wars and Vietnam where everybody had skin in the game and the impact of the conflicts was felt far from the front lines -- and, in the case of Vietnam, body counts and body bags were a constant image on the nightly TV news -- the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have demanded little sacrifice from the rest of us. We were not even asked to pay for them, nor were we asked to send our family members to fight in them. Consequently, the costs in blood, terrible injury, emotional trauma, and family disruption are being borne by a tiny fraction of our people. For the past decade, we have been inconvenienced at airports but have otherwise gone about our daily lives without any reminders of the human and financial costs of these foreign wars being fought in our name.
Fighting both wars on the national credit card, along with an unfunded Medicare prescription drug plan and a huge tax cut for the wealthy, created our current budget crisis, which is causing great suffering for the most financially vulnerable among us -- elderly, disabled or ill people, as well as low-income families. The government programs that help these folks are the primary targets of the deficit hawks who created the fiscal mess in the first place through their malfeasance.
However, they are not the only victims. The Pentagon calculates that 6,300 Americans have died in these two wars so far and another 33,000 have been seriously wounded. Furthermore, according to a recent Rand Corporation study, 300,000 could be suffering from PSTD or other mental illnesses -- suicides by members of the military are running ahead of combat deaths this year -- and as many as 320,000 veterans may have brain injuries caused by bombs. The medical and other costs involved in caring for these veterans will be huge and we need to add that to the long-term calculus of the two unfunded wars. More importantly, we need to recognize and ponder the inordinate human suffering we have asked a small fraction of our citizens and their families to bear -- not to mention the 132,000 Afghan and Iraqi civilians a recent Brown University study estimates have been killed during these conflicts.
So, maybe General McChrystal is right. Maybe we all need to be at risk of having our nearest and dearest pay the ultimate sacrifice or suffer horrible injury when we choose to go to war. At the very least, it might give our armchair warriors and part-time patriots pause in the future. More importantly, it will ensure that everybody has been put on notice that, in any future campaign to sell a foreign war, we all have skin in the game, as General McChrystal aptly puts it. Will it prevent an unjustified or questionable military adventure? Maybe not, but the prospect of more widely-shared sacrifice would undoubtedly strengthen the hand of anti-war activists such as those who helped bring the Vietnam War to an end -- people of conscience and those whose skin was very much at risk.
And how might a reinstated draft work, assuming -- and that is admittedly a huge assumption -- that the American people would go along with it? As in the most recent version, everyone would have to register at age eighteen and be prepared to serve for two years. Women would be included. Clearly, short of another global war or invasion of the American mainland, the military will not need all of these young people. In fact, most estimates are predicting a slimmed down force. Therefore, a variety of public service options will have to be provided and funded.
Just a few examples would be a modern-day version of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to maintain our national and state parks; a similar program aimed at rebuilding our neglected infrastructure (roads, bridges, schools and public buildings); opportunities for 18-year-olds to work as teachers' aides in our most needy schools; employment as home care or residential aides with the elderly, sick or developmentally disabled; serving as Big Brothers or Big Sisters to significant numbers of children at risk of neglect, abuse or delinquency. The range of possibilities is enormous. All that is required is imagination and the will to organize and fund these opportunities to fulfill one's obligation to serve.
As in the last draft, needs in each area of service would be filled by lottery, with the military taking priority. Individuals would be able to declare their preferences and one would hope that those would be accommodated, where possible. But everyone would be required to serve, if called, wherever there was a particular need. Local draft boards, under national guidelines and supervision, would administer these processes, including determining cases where service would impose an undue hardship on an individual or his or her family.
Would this be an enormous undertaking? Certainly. But the country badly needs some nation-building at home and, aside from its goal of having us share the burden of military service, this could make a significant contribution to that process. Among its side benefits would be a dramatic reduction in our chronically high unemployment rate.
So, maybe we should give General McChrystal's suggestion serious consideration -- with or without the public service option.