This essay originally appeared in Palo Alto Patch.
It seemed so innocuous, just a little box at the bottom of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But the box was so much more than it appeared, because when my recently turned 18-year-old son checked said box, it meant he was now officially registered for the draft.
I wouldn’t have given it much thought until I realized the draft is in the news again. At the Aspen Ideas Festival hosted earlier this month, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander of international forces in Afghanistan, argued for reinstatement of the draft.
He said, “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.”
According to McChrystal, the current model of “professional soldiers” means the same small group of Americans are asked to bear the weight of war for the rest of us. “The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq placed unfair and extreme burdens on the professional military, especially reservists, and their families,” McChrystal said.
The Department of Defense reports over 2.3 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and 800,000 of those service members have been deployed multiple times. The consequences, according to McChrystal, are that “because it’s less than one percent of the population (who are serving). . . people are very supportive but they don’t have the same connection to it.” The “it” here being both military service and war.
Think about it. When the vast majority of Americans do not have a direct connection to war (no loved one fighting for our freedoms), war becomes more of an idea than a reality. But when your own son, or daughter, is forced to leave the comforts of home to be sent to places as unforgiving as the sands of Iraq or the desolate mountains of Afghanistan, places where they face the risk of either being killed or killing each and every day, well then suddenly things look a little different, now don’t they?
That the smallest group of Americans ever are being asked to wage war on behalf of the rest of us has immense implications for our citizenry and our country. First, there are the burdens those who serve alone face. The rate of suicide amongst veterans of the Iraq and Afganistan wars is unprecedented. Eighteen veterans kill themselves every day and it is estimated that more soldiers have now died by their own hands then in either war combined.
The challenges on their marriages, their children, and their financial stability is unprecedented. Rates of divorce amongst veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are up 42%. According to a 2011 article in the New York Times, the unemployment rate for veterans aged 20 to 24 has averaged 30 percent, more than double that of others the same age. And did you know that veterans are 50% more likely to be homeless than the average American? Tragic.
But it is the larger unintended consequences that have deep ramifications for our country. When a small group does the work for the rest of us, we as a nation become even more splintered and the bifurcation between the “haves” and “haves not” deepens.
As we know, the current soldier base can be found amongst those with lower incomes. They “volunteer” to serve because financially they have no other choice with the hope that by serving, they will be able to gain experience and some foothold into financial stability (see above to debunk that myth). Meanwhile, the rich are not required to sully their hands. As a result, those of us who can afford it, have no “skin in the game.”
As a nation, we are struggling with the silos we have found ourselves in. The Left hates the Right and visa-versa. Immigrants (whether documented or not) are the new enemy. And despite having a bi-racial president, who really believes we are a post-racial society?
We talk a good game about diversity, but when it comes to social stratification, I wonder where the intersections can be found. Let’s face it, between the rich, the poor, and the shrinking middle class there is little interaction.
This country needs a way to foster interconnections between all of our citizens. Once we thought public schooling would be the great equalizer, but we now know that is not the answer.
Which explains why some are calling for a return to the draft. No. Not the draft of our forefathers where every boy in the country was sent to a senseless war (that would be Vietnam for those readers under the age of 40), but a draft that might actually do good for the individual, the community, and the country.
A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times by Thomas Ricks, fellow at the Center for a New American Security, offers a sensible way to make conscription work. He argues for a three tiered solution:
A revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school. Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.
Those who don’t want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay — teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.
And libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him — no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.
While this might not be the perfect solution, it seems like a much better alternative to the one we have now where the one percents from each side of the spectrum have little in common with the ninety eight percent of us in the middle.
Which brings me back to that seemingly innocuous little box. My son, because he was hoping to secure financial aid, is now in some database of eligible young men who could, at any moment, be suddenly called to serve their country. His rich friends aren’t on any database and his sister won’t be either.
Now that doesn’t seem fair.
As far as I can tell, the safest way to keep my son from going to war is to make sure every son, and daughter, is required to, at least, register, and at best, serve.
If each of our children is at risk by registering, then we just might make more rational, balanced, cautious choices when it comes to launching into yet another costly (and arguably futile) war. And, if each of our children is required to serve, the co-mingling could result in a generation that is finally, truly emblematic of what is means to live in a democracy.
Until then, our amber waves of grain will continue to be locked in silos above the fruited plain.