A Mandatory Civil Draft Could Help America

Consider it government "assistance" for kids who won't grow up.

For many of us, Veterans Day has become a day off from work and an excuse to buy a new mattress.

It’s not hard to see why. The U.S. mobilized roughly 4.5 million troops in World War I, or nearly five percent of the population, in 1918. During the Second World War, more than 16 million Americans put on a uniform. Today, less than one percent of the population is active military and there is no “home front” in the War on Terror. We spent 10 years and trillions of dollars waging two wars and yet the majority of us do not have a family member, or even a friend, who has served in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Of course, there are lots of ways to commit to self-sacrifice that don’t come with the risk of taking a bullet. There is no shortage of groups and initiatives promoting civic engagement; the U.S. government sponsors more than two dozen of them—ranging from the Peace Corps to the Teacher at Sea Program—and nearly every president since John F. Kennedy has launched an initiative to expand American volunteerism.

About 64.3 million people—or more than a quarter of the U.S. population—spent at least some time volunteering in 2011, according to government statistics. Beyond a sense of patriotism, gratitude and compassion, there is little compelling these people to give of themselves. With the exception of paying taxes and obeying the law, it doesn’t take much effort to call oneself an American citizen. Nearly half of us don’t even bother to vote.

As a society, we ask very little of our citizens, which is why politicians and pundits with political agendas as varied as Teddy Roosevelt, William F. Buckley, Rahm Emanuel and John McCain have called for the establishment of a universal national service—in some cases compulsory, in others based on compensation.

In 2007, Time editor Richard Stengel proposed a 10-point plan for a voluntary national service program that, among other things, called for expanding existing volunteer programs, creating a National Service Academy to train a new generation of civic leaders, and compensating young adults for dedicating one-year prior to their 25th birthday to either civil or military service.

Last year, New York Times columnist David Brooks rattled some cages when he called for a National Service Program as a means of bridging the cultural divide between the rich and poor in this country. According to Brooks: “We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years.”

The idea of national conscription got a boost over the summer when Gen. Stanley McChrystal—the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan—told an audience in Aspen that the U.S. war effort would be well served by a compulsory draft.

Author Thomas Ricks followed up with an op-ed calling for a mandatory national service program that gives young men and women the choice of 18 months of non-combat military service or two years of civilian service in exchange for a free or subsidized college education. Ricks also included a “tough love” option, which he discussed earlier this month on WHYY’s Fresh Air:

You don’t want to serve? You don’t want Uncle Sam bothering you? Not a problem. Just don’t be asking Uncle Sam for anything. So no college loans, no mortgage subsidies, nothing from Uncle Sam for the rest of your life. You can drive on our roads. You can breathe our air. But don’t be expecting Uncle Sam to help you out.

While each plan is structured differently and each confronts a different societal problem, all share the common conviction that the country works better when everyone has “skin in the game,” as McChrystal puts it. This is almost certainly true, but I would argue that an equally compelling reason to support universal service is the changing nature of America’s youth.

Kids today grow up a lot slower than they did three decades ago. A twentysomething male who, in 1974, would have been working full-time and welcoming his first child into the world is now just as likely to be single, unemployed and playing video games in his mother’s basement.

In 2012, young people are waiting longer to go to college, and those who do go right out of high school typically wind up back home living with Mom and Dad after they graduate while they spend their days frothing lattes and their weekends going to parties with old high-school buddies.

Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone, but would it really hurt if, after high school, we asked graduates to spend one or two years cleaning parks, tutoring fifth graders or helping repair storm-damaged communities? Give them a small weekly stipend, room and board, a tuition grant at the end of their service and, most importantly, the chance to sacrifice of themselves, and in return we’d get a more enlightened and engaged citizenry. Not only would it do kids some good, but it would help the nation as well. I call that a winning formula.