Turning Apathy Into Good Deeds

American volunteers at an April swearing-in ceremony in Phnom Penh for the Peace Corps's first venture in Cambodia.
American volunteers at an April swearing-in ceremony in Phnom Penh for the Peace Corps's first venture in Cambodia. (By Heng Sinith -- Associated Press)
By Melvin R. Laird
Monday, May 28, 2007

On Memorial Day, when we honor the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, our thoughts turn to what all Americans can do to serve the cause of democracy. It is not enough for a few to fight the wars, guard the borders and serve in office while the majority reap the benefits. Too few Americans understand the price that must be paid to maintain our way of life.

As I listen to calls for reinstating the draft to meet our military's needs, I fear that we're not looking at the bigger picture. Young Americans do need to serve their country. But they are not all needed in the military, nor do all belong there. What our nation needs is a system of compulsory universal civil service for young people.

My views on compulsory service have evolved since 1953, when I entered the House of Representatives with universal military service on my agenda. After four years in the Navy during World War II and having seen the effect that the service had on my life and that of other veterans, I thought that we should require all men to serve in the armed forces for one or two years, beginning at age 18. But my thinking changed as the House Defense Appropriations Committee studied military manpower issues. Modern weaponry required extensive education and training, and it became clear that one must serve at least three years to make a serious contribution to the military.

From 1932 until 1971 the draft made it possible to maintain military manpower needs at low pay rates. Thousands were drafted by the Army for two years and sent to Vietnam with a minimum of training for a one-year tour. In addition to the low pay, the draft was extremely unfair to many young people because of all the loopholes and educational deferments. To end this unfairness, among other reasons, I moved first to the lottery draft and then sponsored and supported the all-volunteer force when I became secretary of defense.

Those who would reinstate the draft to meet the demands of the "war on terror" are misguided. The regular forces, National Guard and reserves need only about one out of every 18 young men and women coming of age to fill all of their manpower requirements. In the lifetime of the all-volunteer force, enough young people have enlisted in our military in times of peace and war. All services, including the Army Reserves and the Army National Guard, met or beat their enlistment quotas in the last quarter.

During the past 30 years, even when the pay and benefits of the volunteer military have been lower than in civilian life, our young people have stepped up. Some respond to an inner call to serve; others are motivated by an opportunity for education; still others are drawn to the adventure, challenge or camaraderie of military life. We ask them to risk their lives and put their families aside, but we dishonor them when we take their sacrifice and in return offer stingy paychecks, inadequate equipment and repeated combat tours.

The overuse of reserve and National Guard personnel can be helped if we pay for adequate compensation and medical treatment and if we care for military families. Equipment and supplies must also be rapidly restored after a deployment. Neither the Defense Department nor Congress is dealing with these problems; the current budget is inadequate and unrealistic. If this is not corrected soon, reenlistment rates could fall. Not only will the military suffer, but America cannot afford a generation of young people turning away from public service and all that it means.

Understandably, some youths do not feel that military service is the best way to express their desire to give something back. The military does not need all of them, nor should the Defense Department be saddled with another unwanted draft. But every department of government could benefit from universal service, as would many other institutions. Our schools are crying out for teacher assistants; our immigrant programs need additional staff; Head Start, the Peace Corps and special education programs need helpers, as do hospitals and nursing facilities. Young people could serve one or two years in a much-needed civilian universal service program run by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, or the State Department. Such service would foster a culture of responsibility for our democracy and, as such, would surely have the side benefit of increasing military enlistments. And those volunteering for the military would be exempt from the required civilian universal service.

I am not blind to the economic impact such an idea would have. A program would have to overcome the natural entanglements of the federal bureaucracy; it would not come cheaply; nor would there be universal enthusiasm for universal service. But in a time when our nation is threatened by antidemocratic forces from without, universal service would go a long way toward curing the apathy within.

The writer was defense secretary from 1969 to 1973 and was a Republican representative from Wisconsin from 1953 to 1969.

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