Should the United States revive the draft? Thomas E. Ricks, the esteemed military writer, thinks so, and in a New York Times op-ed, he gives some of the worst reasons for doing so. Among them is supplying the military with stooped labor for menial jobs “and in general doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to.” One of them is “driving generals around.” I’d like to see the recruitment poster for that.
Ricks is a serious writer (he was once The Post’s military expert) with a Pulitzer and a raft of other awards to his name, and he has written on a serious subject. He is hardly alone in calling for a revival of the draft — he cited Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as a proponent — and as an example of general interest in the subject, his piece shot up to No. 2 on the Times “most e-mailed” list which, unless Ricks was furiously e-mailing himself, has to mean something.
Alas, the article is far from convincing. Ricks would create three categories of conscripts of both sexes. The first “would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.”
Right there, the plan becomes a non-starter. It is not possible to take (steal?) 18 months of a young person’s life so that he or she performs such menial task. No one is going to write patriotic music for such tasks, no movies will be made — “I Drove for the General,” “Top Broom,” etc. — and young people are not going to put up with it. Instead of college or vocational training or merely searching for the perfect wave, the government is going to compel janitorial duties. This, Thomas, is not going to happen.
Ricks’s two other categories of conscripts likewise have their unrealistic aspects, but that should not obscure the larger question of whether the draft should be revived. Unlike Ricks, I was in the Army and did some of the very tasks listed in the op-ed. I mowed lawns and painted barracks, and while I did not drive a general around, I did accompany a colonel as he made his rounds. I was his orderly for the day — hours of stupefying boredom. The highlight of my colonel’s day was when he burst from his office, assembled the sergeant major, his driver and me — and went to inspect the construction of a fence.
For all the boredom, the tedium and — most important — the lack of air conditioning, I found a single virtue in my service: I slept in a barracks with 50 other guys. I got to know — and like — men from the backwoods of Maine, from the ghettos of Newark, from the farms of Mississippi and Michigan. We swapped stories — some of them shocking — and I learned a bit about America and its people. We are one nation but not one people.
This was useful. This was instructive. This took me out of my comfy college-boy environment. I hated the Army all the time I was in, but I do not hate it now. It was not a great experience, but it sure was interesting.
One other thing. Ricks quotes McChrystal as saying, “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.” This, of course, is the most powerful argument for the draft — and against it.
No nation should go to war capriciously, and a draft ensures that is not likely to happen. The United States could not have sent draftees to that senseless was in Iraq. But the need to have a popular cause — a cause so popular the nation will risk the lives of its young draftees — would also serve as a brake on the use of force in pursuit of legitimate, but maybe not popular, goals. After all, we send cops into situations we would never attempt ourselves because they are our domestic, all-volunteer, armed force. If we had to get a posse each time, we’d have a problem on our hands.