Opinion: Draft makes U.S. defense everyone’s duty

March 9, 2013


— Years before he was to be elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Virginia and when he was still very much a Reagan Republican, Jim Webb — who as a Marine rifle platoon and company commander in Vietnam had earned the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts — condemned the total separation of Americans in power in Washington from Americans in mortal peril in the Persian Gulf.

His words still ring true: “If the U.S. military was truly representative of the country, you would have people going through the roof right now.” The impersonal detachment of civilian policy planners and think-tank guerrillas toward American soldiers and Marines in harm’s way clearly outraged Jim Webb: “Their attitude strikes me as, ‘You volunteered. You took the money. Shut up and die.’”

Of the 535 members of Congress in office when Ronald Reagan was running for the White House, 412 of them — because of the draft law in force between 1940 and 1973 — had served in the U.S. military. In the current Congress, just 103 have worn their nation’s uniform. Does military service influence the public policy choices of a politician? Consider this: Only one major presidential candidate in the two most recent national elections made the outlawing of all forms of torture of prisoners of war his cause.

He happened to be the only presidential candidate who, as a prisoner of war, had himself been tortured: John McCain.

One real benefit of the draft was that it meant that practically every American family had a profoundly personal interest in U.S. foreign policy. War was not an abstraction. War was not a spectator sport. War could — and did — kill people you knew and loved and make others into widows and orphans.

We Americans enacted and accepted our first national income tax in order to pay for the Civil War. Both world wars dramatically increased both the number of Americans paying taxes and the rates at which we paid. What do we now ask of ourselves and each other? Bigger and better tax cuts, especially for the most advantaged among us. Talk about sacrifice.

Nobody captured civilians just checking out or going AWOL from their fellow Americans in harm’s way as well as Jim Webb did in his memorable war novel, “Fields of Fire.” The book’s Marine sergeant returning to Vietnam for a second tour after a visit to the U.S. reports on the attitudes of the home front to an officer: “Lieutenant, you’d hardly know there was a war on. It’s in the papers ... but that’s it. Airplane drivers still drive their airplanes. Businessmen still run their businesses. College kids still go to college. It’s like nothing really happened except to other people. It isn’t touching anybody except us.”

War is hellish and hateful. But even more so must be the hypocrite who endorses, even demands, war while avoiding any personal risk to himself, his relatives, or his friends. When national policy dictates the sending of American troops into combat, then national defense becomes literally every American’s business and every American’s responsibility.

By now, we must have learned from painful experience that a nation’s strength is ultimately measured by our will and resolve of that nation’s people to stand together — in individual and collective sacrifice — for the common good.

Freedom is not free. A wise and just manpower policy is the foundation of our national defense. The volunteer military, its supporters agreed, was to be a peacetime service. When the nation went into battle, the draft would be resumed. The argument was direct: If the vital interests of the nation were worth fighting for, then we would not hesitate to ask all Americans to shoulder the responsibility and the risk of the fighting.

The late Charles Moskos, the nation’s pre-eminent military sociologist and himself an Army draftee after graduating from Princeton, offered this insight on when and why Americans support military action: “The answer to the question of what are vital national interests is found not so much in the cause itself, but in who is willing to die for that cause.” He continued, “Only when the privileged classes perform military service, only when elite youth are on the firing line does the country define the cause as worth young people’s blood and do war losses become acceptable.”

The United States military is, to its great credit, increasingly integrated by race, but, through no fault of its own, increasingly segregated by class. It is beyond time for all Americans to “put some skin in the game” in providing for our common defense. We know that a draft without exemptions that recruits the sons of affluence and influence will mean the civilian leadership of the country will demand a measured, extended, and public debate before any future, impulsive rush to war.

In his landmark work on the American infantryman, “Mud Soldiers,” respected military journalist George Wilson quoted combat veteran Col. Steve Siegfried on why the U.S. — in time of war — imposes a military draft of civilians. “Armies don’t fight wars,” Siegfried said. “Countries fight wars ... A country fights a war. If it doesn’t, then we shouldn’t send an army.”

Because the country does indeed fight a war, then all of us, as citizens, must be willing to pay the price, to bear the burden, and to accept our responsibility. That’s what the draft is.

— Mark Shields, who served in the Marines, is a commentator for the PBS “NewsHour.” His email address is at shieldsmrk@aol.com.


Bob Harvey 4 years, 10 months ago

Interesting comments regarding who protects versus who is protected. I have long believed that those who rule should, as the article stated, have some skin in the game. Those in the military are not simply pawns for the elite to toss around as they see fit. If the use of the military is actually in the best interest of the country then let all take part.

Thinking_Out_Loud 4 years, 10 months ago

Perhaps the issue is not so much that elected officials should have had military service experience so much as it is that the electorate needs to elect more appropriate, intelligent, and thoughtful representatives. It is easy to blame our elected officials as being "too far removed" or "too disengaged"--or simply "detached" as Mr. Shields writes so incisively. However, the blame lays directly on our shoulders as the persons responsible to elect appropriate representatives.

number3of5 4 years, 10 months ago

Reinstating the draft would be a good thing, whether we are at war or not. It would teach disipline to many of the lazy, disrespectful young men and women. I know it would benefit many young men who can't or won't keep a job...

jhawkinsf 4 years, 10 months ago

A universal draft that included everyone, including the sons and daughters of Congressional leaders would end wars of choice. When their children come home in body bags or traumatized by what they have seen and done, wars of choice will end. When Malia is laid to rest in Arlington and Sasha wanders the streets, tortured by the demons of PTSD, our missions in Afghanistan and Iraq will be over.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 10 months ago

Ain't gonna happen anytime soon, considering the armed forces are undergoing a big time downsizing where many folks are getting furloughed and discharged. This is a discussion perhaps to have only in the theoretical sense of preparing for some unspecified next buildup in personnel, but don't think this kind of long term planning is going to go anywhere right now with every congressman and woman spending all of their time trying to preserve the jobs in their district that the armed services and their contractors bring.

weeslicket 4 years, 10 months ago

good lte. i think this is the first mark shield piece i've read in this paper.

Curveball 4 years, 10 months ago

The draft won't work. Jimmy Carter gave amnesty to all the draft dodgers who fled the country during the Viet Nam war. Before that, very few were prosecuted for draft evasion and the maximum for a conviction was 6 months in jail. Most of those convicted served less than that. Yeah I know the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are still going on, but they will end soon under this administration. Why should you submit to a draft in times of peace when you don't have to in times of war?

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