Is conscription a draft idea?

Image of Gillian Tett

This month, American newspapers are full of indignant stories about the country’s discontented youth. Little wonder: now that school and college are out for the summer, millions of graduates are lodged aimlessly in the family home, struggling to find jobs.

Could one solution to this problem be a return of the compulsory military draft? Until recently, the idea would have been almost taboo in polite company, especially elite liberal circles. America has shied away from conscription since the disasters it suffered in the Vietnam war.

But last week, former US army general Stanley McChrystal floated precisely that proposal from the stage of the Aspen Ideas Festival (America’s sunny, summertime version of the World Economic Forum in Davos). “I think we need a national service,” he told the elite business leaders, academics, politicians and media who had assembled amid the lush mountains of Colorado. “We need it at the conclusion of high school and university. I don’t think that young people would fight [the draft] if it was seen to be fair.”

Far from getting jeered, McChrystal got a standing ovation. Indeed, in terms of applause, his wide-ranging comments scored higher than the other luminaries on the stage (which included people such as Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary; Ehud Barak, Israeli defence minister; and Valerie Jarrett, the White House senior adviser).

Why? The key issue is something that dominated last week’s Aspen debates: polarisation. The meeting clearly showed that today’s American elite is increasingly worried about social divides. Never mind all those statistics that show how US income inequality is growing (or, as a cynic might add, how the top 1 per cent, such as those Aspen devotees, are becoming separated from everyone else in wealth terms). What really worries the elite is the social gap, or the fear that America no longer has a common cultural and moral pole to unite around. As Charles Murray, the libertarian author, explained in Aspen, today’s poor white working class is increasingly socially detached from the rich. And as Robert Putnam, the political scientist then added, that reflects a decline in America’s “bridging capital” – or institutions that can unite Americans across the income and social divide.

This is where McChrystal steps in. As he explained in his impressively frank style, the reason he wants a military draft is two-fold. First, it could provide the military with more troops (which it needs), but it could also offer America some of that badly needed bridging capital. “It would be good to have a shared experience,” McChrystal explained, pointing out that if “everyone over the age of 25 was able to go into a bar and talk about where they served”, it would unite Americans again. “I think Israel gets amazing value from that ... in terms of creating a shared experience.” And of course, a bit of service might offer some discipline for today’s youth – along with a sense of (shared) sacrifice in an entitlement age.

Could this idea ever fly? It seems most unlikely right now. The current fiscal crunch is placing the military under pressure to cut its reach, not extend it. And politically, the idea would be wildly controversial, particularly on the left. Little surprise, then, that when Valerie Jarrett was asked about a military draft she ducked the issue, just blandly noting that “community service should be expected, because it makes you feel part of something bigger than yourself”.

But as someone who has seen the impact of a draft up close, as a result of having relatives in Switzerland (which practises military service), and a period living in the former USSR (which has a draft), I can understand McChrystal’s point. I am always wary of anything that extends an army’s power; I dislike militarised societies. But I also know from watching friends and relatives just how effective military service can be as social glue and a rite of passage, as anthropologists say. The sheer experience of being sent to a faraway base, and forced to coexist with a cross-section of people, is a life-changing event. Other institutions can also achieve that effect; that is the appeal of summer camps. But military service is nevertheless uniquely powerful; just look at veterans for evidence of that.

Of course the bitter irony in Aspen last week, is that many of the elite attendees who were applauding McChrystal were probably doing so without any expectation that their own kids (or grandkids) would ever suffer under a draft. As the experience of Vietnam shows, it tends to be the poor who end up being most affected. But even if McChrystal’s ideas never fly, they still raise a crucial question: if the military is not going to be social glue for America, then is there anything else that might play that role? That is, perhaps, the great issue that now hangs over the 2012 presidential race; and remains dangerously unanswered, be that in Colorado or anywhere else.

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