The New York Times columnist David Brooks wants to bring back the draft. Or at least some form of compulsory universal national service. He thinks it will bring Americans back together again.
Brooks rolled out the idea with an off-hand comment at the end of a column in which he was discussing libertarian author Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart. The book portrays America as a country increasingly polarized on social, economic, educational and moral lines into upper and lower classes.
Brooks thinks the polarization of the upper and lower classes has advanced to the point that it would be more accurate to refer to them as “tribes” than classes.
And he thinks compulsory national service for all young Americans is the way to close the divide.
“I doubt Murray would agree,” Brooks wrote, “but we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.
“If we could jam the tribes together, we’d have a better elite and a better mass,” he said.
He’s delusional, of course. The last time America had a draft was during the Vietnam War. It did not bring Americans together. It tore the country apart. Millions of upper-class American males avoided military service by sitting out the war in college, and millions of lower-class American males, including a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics, ended up in the military.
When members of different classes ended up serving together, they didn’t always join hands and sing “Kumbaya” and “God Bless America.” This was the period when the word “fragging” entered the English language.
Moreover, a case can be made for the proposition that the draft helped fuel the class polarization that Murray is talking about. For one thing, the wide spread aversion to military service that took root among upper-class Americans during the Vietnam War, in large part due to the draft, did not end with the war. It exists to this day.
The draft did not create nearly as much resentment during World War II as it did during Vietnam for several reasons: 1) it was much more universal, 2) the fascist threat was seen as existential and, 3) unlike Vietnam, the goal was victory (as opposed to the Vietnam goal of containment), and every effort was made to win the war as quickly as possible.
The sort of draft that Brooks is contemplating would be no World War II-style mobilization. Draftees would be called to the colors in the absence of a clear national threat or even a clear national mission, which is likely to inspire resentment, draft avoidance and desertion, not patriotism.
There are some practical problems with Brooks’ idea as well.
Assuming women as well as men are drafted, and assuming the length of service is two years, the same length as the Vietnam and Korean War drafts, some eight million young Americans would be doing their national service at any given time.
Which would give rise to some pesky expenses Brooks may have overlooked.
The government would have to erect barracks — or, since this is the 21st century, after all — dormitories capable of housing eight million conscripts or pay them a housing allowance.
It would have to provide 24 million meals a day or pay them a food allowance.
It would have to pay them wages, probably based on what military conscripts would make today if the services started drafting again.
It would have to offer them veterans benefits, including G.I. bill with educational benefits.
And so on.
But the real question is just what on earth would the government do with eight million conscripts with minimal work skills?
It can’t put them in the military.
There are only 1.5 million slots in all the services combined, and they are all filled with volunteers. Besides, we’re downsizing the military.
There are only so many trees to be planted, trails to be cut, and picnic tables to be built in the national parks. There are only so many bed pans to be carried in the nation’s hospitals.
The country does not need several million additional teachers who lack life experience and have only the foggiest idea about how to teach.
We aren’t into mega-projects like the Hoover and Grand Coolie Dams these days. Besides, organized labor would raise hell if the government tried to build them with conscript labor.
And so on. But come to think of it, there is one way the federal government could use 8 million conscripts: It could deploy them as border guards and neighborhood watch grunts. At least that way the draftees would be providing a legitimate governmental function — public safety and national security — instead of doing make work. And it would almost certainly result in a big drop in illegal border crossings and street crime. What could possibly go wrong?