To the surprise of no one, the call for a return to universal military service for all of America’s youth won instant approval from the audience, a group of mostly white, mostly middle-aged businessmen.
What made the message so interesting was that the man delivering it, David Kennedy, is a tenured professor at Stanford University and has admitted resisting military service as a young man.
In 1967, he felt that the draft was only for suckers and other young men not gainfully employed. But now he felt differently. In his audience were a high percentage of military veterans, men who had shared a foxhole and the experience of being citizen soldiers. And the professor believed that they were better Americans because of it.
Calls for universal military service are usually heard from the Far Right spectrum of our society, so when a tenured professor at a place that is openly hostile to the military speaks in favor of a compulsory two- or three-year hitch in one of the nation’s five services, we as a society should sit up and pay attention.
The logic for universal service goes something like this: The entire foundation of our democracy is built around the notion of the citizen soldier. By forcing regular Americans to play the role of citizen soldiers, our forefathers made it politically difficult to lead our nation into war unless there was a compelling need.
For most of our nation’s 230-year history, this concept worked remarkably well, as soldiers for most of our nation’s wars were drawn from all levels of society. This was particularly true of World War II, when fully 90 percent of male college students were in the service before 1945.
The concept of the citizen soldier took its biggest hits during and immediately after the Vietnam conflict. Though the draft seemingly affected everyone in World War II and Korea, by the final years of Vietnam it affected only those too poor or too politically unconnected to beat it. As a result, American soldiers fighting in Vietnam were younger, less educated and more likely to be poor than at any time in our nation’s history. It was a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.
The all-volunteer force we’ve had in place ever since didn’t help that, either, turning our armed forces into what could almost be called a purely “mercenary” military, where people fight for pay. Today, the folks in uniform have less in common with the people they swear to protect and defend than at any time in our history. Fewer than 6 percent of them have ever been inside a college classroom. This growing lack of common experience is creating a social gap between our soldiers and society, for while it is true that the American military is the smallest it has been in over 70 years, it is equally true that our military is the mightiest the earth has ever seen. Thus, the threat to democracy created by this growing gap between soldiers and citizens is that we can fight wars too easily, and fight them with people with whom we have very little in common.
The professor fears that it is this last trait that endangers our democracy most.
The argument for a return to universal service, then, is an attempt to close this growing gap between the military and society and re-enforce the common American experience of serving one’s country. Though this could be viewed as a veiled attack on the existing conflict and how we got there, I take the professor at his word that this is an intellectual problem with which he has grappled since the end of Vietnam.
I believe him. Whether or not the dangers the professor laid out are as real and imminent as implied, one has to admit his perspective on universal service is worthy of our consideration.