Thomas Ricks proposes a return to the draft and suggests that doing so would “make Americans think more carefully before going to war.” Daniel Larison doesn’t think that the form of draft that Ricks suggests would do anything of the sort, and I am inclined to agree with Larison. That doesn’t mean that I think that a requirement for national service is a bad idea. There is, I believe, some merit in the thought.
Ricks refers to a “three tiered system” but actually only describes two tiers. The first is military service in a non-combat role, short term and at lower pay than the “volunteer” forces, and working in support functions. The second is civilian service, as teachers on impoverished city areas, rebuilding infrastructure and such. Both tiers would not pay well but would offer benefits, including tuition and such.
What he calls the “third tier” is to opt out of national service, in which case one would receive no benefits from the national government, including no Social Security, Medicare, etc. “Those who want minimal government,” he says, “can have it.” I’m not sure how he thinks that could actually be accomplished. Do we paint them with a red “x” or something, so that terrorists can kill them, but not people who the federal government is “keeping safe from terrorists” and other dangers?
“Hey al-Queda, the ones with red x’s are fair game. Go for it.”
And, like Larison, I’m not sure how Ricks thinks such a plan would deter engagement in war. Draftees would not be faced with any prospect of combat, so why would they or their families care whether we are engaged in war or not? Besides which our government does such a sales pitch on the case for war beforehand that support for it is all but universal anyway. Iraq was sold as both necessary and easy to such a degree that it received overwhelming public support, as was the first Gulf War.
What the plan Ricks proposes does remind me of is a novel by Robert Heinlein published in 1959; Starship Troopers. It posited a society in which only people who had completed a term of national service were allowed to vote, and in which that privilege was quite highly valued. People who had not served envied those who had, and citizens were willing to go to great difficulty and risk to earn the right to vote in national elections.
In a discussion within the story, there is mockery of a society which was so insane as to allow everyone to vote, and of how that society had failed miserably. A teacher asks rhetorically if anyone knows why the present system is in place and answers, “Because it works, and everything before this has failed.” It was an interesting discussion, which was integral to the story itself, and it was written more than half a century ago. I sometimes wonder what Heinlein would write if he saw our political landscape today.