After 13 years of war, with the burden borne by less than ½ of 1% of our fellow citizens, it is time for us as a nation to have serious discussion about the concept of compulsory national service. As the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on and we face the very real possibility that we will never not be at war again in our lifetimes, the nation needs to have an honest discussion about who should serve.
During World War II, 61% of the 16-plus million who served in uniform were draftees. Only 32% of service members volunteered to fight our enemies from 1942 until the end of the war in August 1945. The numbers during the Korean War reflected near parity, with 1.5 million drafted and 1.3 million volunteers.
During the Vietnam War, fully 66% of the 9.1 million who served in uniform were volunteers. Nearly 3 million of them actually served in Vietnam. Vietnam Veterans represent almost 10% of the Baby Boomer generation, and draftees accounted for 17,725 of combat deaths in Vietnam.
According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, a part of the Department of Defense, as of January 31 there were nearly 1.4 million people serving in the U.S Armed Forces. This number is equivalent to less than ½ of 1% of the U.S. population. It is as if the entire population of the state of New Hampshire enlisted in the military and residents of the other 49 states and five territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Marianas, United States Virgin Islands and American Samoa) took a powder.
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Except for service members and their families, no one else has any “skin in the game” as the saying goes. A bumper sticker proclaiming, “I Support the Troops” does not qualify as sharing the burden.
Multiple deployments have left the military a little bruised and battered, and their families stretched to the limit and in crisis. The future of non-intervention is a myth, and the reality of the all-volunteer military is absurd.
Who should serve?
Following graduation from high school, and after a summer of processing and skills assessment, every able-bodied 18-year-old man and woman will perform two years of meaningful foreign or domestic service. Service should not be limited to the military, though it is very likely that many will choose that option. The only exception will be for those who are profoundly disabled. Under this system everyone goes.
The idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts fits the universal service model like a glove. Our nation will be richer for the contributions of our young people in hospitals, inner-city schools, economically challenged neighborhoods, and meaningful public-service projects, much like the Civilian Conservations Corps programs many of our fathers were part of during the Depression.
Given these opportunities, young people will learn the most valuable lesson in life — you do not stand alone. They will develop skills that will serve them throughout their lives. They will learn a sense of mutual respect after being in close quarters with people they would never have met otherwise, and whose only common trait is their youth and energy.
Life is a team sport, and if you want to play, you have to be on the team.They will learn that whether you are black, white, Republican, male, Hispanic, Jew, Democrat, female, Christian, Muslim, or atheist, life is much easier if you work together, cooperate and strive for a common goal.
There is a reason Navy SEALS serve in a team. While each operator possesses amazing skills and courage, no one of them can accomplish anything alone.
Now is the time for a full-throated debate in the public square and the tone-deaf halls of Congress. A program of universal service, not selective service, will benefit our nation in the short term and long term by giving our young people a real sense of having a stake in the future.
While in service, they earn credits for higher education, whether it is in a trade school or the Ivy League. This investment will pay unimagined dividends.
Jim Doyle of Fresno is a freelance writer and a veterans advocate.