California Forum

Gerald Haslam: A call to mandatory national service

Over the years, certain tableaus from televised events have stayed with me. I particularly recall seeing American heroes like John McCain and John Kerry raked over the coals by men who hadn’t taken the opportunity to serve in our nation’s military. Some non-veterans apparently believed that freedom – for them at least – really was free.

The notion of national service as a citizen’s obligation was savaged a generation ago due to misuse of the military draft and lack of candor during the Vietnam War. The perception that to a great extent the poor and the unconnected fought that war, while the rich and privileged observed and commented – or perhaps fled to Canada – destroyed trust in our country’s leaders. That hasn’t changed with the emergence of an all-volunteer military. I read recently that only 103 of our current national legislators have any military experience, yet all of them vote on policies that place the lives of others in jeopardy.

One pal, a Marine veteran, suggested to me that only military vets should be allowed to vote on military matters. “Let the chicken-hawks earn the right to make those decisions,” he said.

That’s likely not a practical requirement in today’s political climate, but why not require all of us, including candidates for various offices, to have performed some type of national service in order to be eligible to run for office? I’d go a step further and require all able-bodied young persons – male-female, rich-poor, reluctant-enthusiastic – to give the country two years of mandatory national service.

By national service, I mean not only military – although in my scheme everyone would undergo basic military training – but also for peacetime conscripts service along the lines of Volunteers for America, the Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, Points of Light, the Conservation Corps and others. My Marine buddy suggested that no one would in that case volunteer for the military; all would seek less demanding options. I disagreed.

My own experience as a soldier convinces me that warriors arise with each generation, and they would opt for military service, just as my Marine buddy once had. Moreover, in my scheme the volunteer Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force would remain in effect. Future career soldiers might still jump directly into active service.

In case of war, conscripts in non-military service – all of them already having completed military basic training – could provide a ready second line of soldiers. And, of course, conscientious objectors could still object.

In my generation, working-class boys were expected to serve. My own military hitch was a great turning point for me because I came to recognize that my life wasn’t entirely my own; I owed the nation something. Whether or not there was a war during my service was out of my hands.

At the conclusion of the national service I recommend that some variation of the GI Bill should be made available to all who perform honorably. This need not be as generous for non-warriors in peacetime as for those who put their lives on the line during wartime. But during this period of significant educational debt and limited educational opportunity, government assistance should help stabilize the economy and rescue good minds.

The principal objection to universal national service – beyond the idea that our own children and grandchildren might find themselves in harm’s way – is that another bureaucracy would arise to juggle the obligations and rewards of service. That’s true, but I think it would be worth it.

As PBS political commentator Mark Shields recently pointed out, American foreign policy when last we had a draft tended to have profoundly personal consequences because anyone’s child – your senator’s or your own – might be called to duty. Contemporary mandatory national service could indeed limit any thinking person’s willingness to employ war as an early diplomatic option when matters don't go our way.