In 1948, President Harry Truman signed into law the Selective Service Act, which was the last instance of conscription in the United States. The draft ended in 1973, which fulfilled Richard Nixon’s campaign promise. Much of his motivation was to silence antiwar protestors, whom he believed acted more in self-interest than principle.
Ending the draft effectively ended much public participation and shared sacrifice when the United States has contemplated war since then — most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently our armed forces represent about one percent of the U.S. population and there is no better example to convey the lack of civic duty in contemporary America.
For the wars of the previous decade, most public involvement has been limited to higher gas prices. And unlike in World War II, when there were 16 million American men serving, there is no widespread public involvement, like food rationings. Subsequently, the burden of war has rested upon servicemen and women and their families as most people go about their lives as usual.
As Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers writes in his debut novel, The Yellow Birds (2012) about the war: “Here we are, fretting over our Netflix queues while halfway around the world people are being blown to bits. And though we might slap a yellow ribbon magnet to our truck’s tailgate, though we might shake a soldier’s hand in the airport, we ignore the fact that in America an average of 18 veterans are said to commit suicide every day. What a shame, we say, and then move on quickly to whatever other agonies and entertainments occupy the headlines.”
Should the draft be reinstated? There obviously is not an easy answer. Those who were not alive during the Vietnam era have no direct awareness of such a reality. Also, it would be absurd for someone who has not served in uniform to suggest bringing back the draft.
But with regard to significantly increasing public engagement in both domestic and foreign affairs, this question demands very serious consideration.
It also prompts one to ask: What sort of priorities do Americans share?
There are several indications of the lack of civic responsibility in the U.S. With the exception of the 2008 presidential election, voter turnout is notably lower here than in many countries. When education is concerned, people are quick to lament deficiencies in their own school districts, but disregard those in other districts.
Where organized religion once provided a venue through which people shared beliefs and community, its influence in public life has declined. Family values have deteriorated well beyond the increase of divorce rates and teenage pregnancies.
The divide between people with and without health care also comes to mind. Even the simple act of caring for the medical well-being of others is too much for us to handle, as proven by the embarrassing quality of discourse about health care in recent years.
Instead, public life has moved more toward a “How can I best satisfy my immediate needs?” mentality and a winner-take-all society has emerged. There is a lack of a substantial collective effort or shared experience that binds this nation together, which takes us back to the draft.
Conscription is not necessarily the best way to instill virtue in our citizenry. Perhaps an alternative form of compulsory service, like serving in AmeriCorps would be necessary if the draft were to be reinstated. But it would not be a bad place to start.
Countries like South Korea, Israel, Switzerland and Greece have conscription militaries, which the public supports. The idea that conscription would make our country more militaristic is nonsensical, when it would instead require politicians to convince many more mothers that sending their sons and daughters to war would be necessary.
For this reason, along with the need to reduce the burden of those currently serving, retired General Stanley McChrystal has expressed support for reinstating the draft.
As far as the divide between our representatives and the reality of war is concerned, it is no coincidence that Congress’ historically low approval ratings have occurred while Congress has seen its lowest percentage of veterans in office since World War II.
Only 17 of 100 Senators and 86 of 435 Representatives have served in the military. Likewise, for the first time since 1932, none of the four men on the national ticket in the last presidential election had military experience. The last president to serve (at least, not in a role designed to avoid combat) was George H.W. Bush, who left office around the time most upperclassmen were born.
The military is the public institution in which Americans trust most and if the general public were more involved in it, there could be great societal benefits. A greater sense of discipline, responsibility, personal pride and the concomitants of citizenship — knowing your country’s history, system of government and politics — would surely follow.
Such benefits are invaluable to civil society.
Online Editor Ross Fogg is a College senior from Fayetteville, Ga.
Illustration by Mariana Hernandez