Connections: Conscientious Objections

Is it fair for this country to rely entirely on volunteers to fight our wars, when volunteers are most likely to be from the disadvantaged backgrounds?

   If you are like me and do not have many friends or family between the ages of 18 and 25, it is possible that you aren’t entirely aware of the Selective Service System, in which 20 million young men are now registered — and therefore signed up to be drafted should a draft be instated.
    (It may seem strange to be worrying about a draft at a time when the United States is no longer at war in Iraq and when President Obama has said the last combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But, taking the long view — and given the events of the past 10 years — I am not sanguine about enduring peace. Are you?)
    My own feelings on the issue of conscription were shaped by our nation’s experiences during the Vietnam War; for me, the very word  “draft” sets off visceral alarm bells. But there is, of course, more than one side to this coin. Is it fair for this country to rely entirely on volunteers to fight our wars, when volunteers are most likely to be from the disadvantaged backgrounds? Well, no, of course not. Clearly, an all-volunteer military does place an undue burden on people of color and on the sons and daughters of the poor.
    It is something of a cliché to say it, but it is no doubt true that congressional leaders would be less willing to endorse the costs of war if their own children were called up.
    I have read that most career military men, at least publicly, do not support a draft, instead holding that a professional force is the only way to maintain high standards. But Retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who was the commander of the international forces in Afghanistan, has broken ranks to state on record that a revived draft is needed to address a burden that is shared unequally. “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk,” he said last year. “You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”
   Thomas E. Ricks, an expert on military policy who is a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, has taken this argument to the next level. In a New York Times op-ed piece published hot on the heels of General McChrystal’s headline-making remarks, Mr. Ricks wrote that females as well as males, coming out of high school, should be conscripted and, moreover, that their service should be divided into three tiers.
    One tier would be 18 months in the military — not deployment, but non-combat jobs like staffing the Pentagon or maintaining military bases — with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. Another would be civilian service, for a slightly longer period and equally low pay (with conscripts working as park rangers, teachers, aides for the aged, and so on). And the third would be the right to opt out of service by pledging never to accept government assistance of any sort whatsoever.
    Personally, I cannot help but think Mr. Ricks’s proposal would only create yet another draft that —  like the one that was in operation during the Vietnam War — puts young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in the line of fire, while allowing the rich to slip away to safety. Who, after all, would be most likely to make the draft-avoidance bargain (declining future government assistance, from Medicare to mortgage guarantees)? Why, those who can afford to. And who would be most likely to sign up for military service in exchange for, say, a chance at college? The poor.
    Really, though, what all these pro-draft arguments boil down to, from my perspective as a veteran of the 1960s, is a pile of justifications for something that simply should not be allowed happen. While Europe and most of the rest of the world are downsizing their military, why are we still on the march?
    My own children are long past draft age, but I do not like the idea that my grandchildren might be legally required to register some day. The question shouldn’t be how to make the waging of war more equitable but how to make war no more.