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For a DREAMy, Wartime, National Service Draft


Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been sounding the alarm about the fact that the burden of “our” wars is being disproportionately borne by a very small slice of the population: soldiers and their families.

Like, I am sure, many Americans, I have sharply conflicted feelings about this.

One the one hand: I strongly agree with Secretary Gates that the burden is disproportionately falling on a few, and that this is unjust, and I am glad that he is trying to use his position to call attention to this injustice and urge that it be remedied.

On the other hand: they are not my wars. I did not vote for them; I did not and I do not support them. I have worked with others to end them; obviously, my companions and I have not yet succeeded in this endeavor, but going forward, I am more seized with the urgency of ending the wars than with the urgency of spreading the pain more fairly while they continue.

Moreover, I am not a little irritated that my opinions, and those of my companions, are systematically marginalized when major decisions about the wars are made, but we are then urged to more fully share the sacrifices resulting from the decisions into which we were told that our input was not welcome.

Secretary Gates is surely aware of the paradox of his position: he bemoans the fact that the burden of the wars falls disproportionately on a few, but he is well aware that the fact that the burden falls disproportionately on a few is a policy choice that has been made by his colleagues with the goal of facilitating war politically.

If we allow ourselves to consider all possible remedies to the problem posed by Secretary Gates, including those that are politically absurd, an obvious solution presents itself: reinstate the military draft.

But this is a dead letter politically. The Pentagon doesn’t want it; Congress will never approve it.

Moreover, even if this were not a dead letter politically, I could not in good conscience advocate for it. I cannot advocate that Americans should be compelled to participate directly in an unjust war against their will, even if such compulsion would help end the war.

However, if there were a form of the draft that would not compel Americans to participate directly in an unjust war against their will, I would enthusiastically support it.

Here is my proposal for such a draft.

From now on, when the country is at war, there shall be a national service draft. Every resident of America, male and female, documented and undocumented, who is in the age range of those eligible to volunteer to serve in our armed forces shall be required to make themselves available for national service, military or civilian.

No one will be compelled to participate in military service. A person called to national service who does not want or is not able, for whatever reason, to participate in military service, will be given a civilian assignment. The term of service, and the pay and benefits, including educational benefits, of the civilian service, will be similar to that for soldiers who do not receive pay or benefits specifically linked to combat service.

In other words: during wartime, no one will be compelled to participate in combat, but one may be compelled to give up as much time as a soldier does. Furthermore, to the extent practical, the civilian service will be designed to bring those not participating in military service into contact with those serving in the military and with the human costs of war. National service draft civilians will be assigned, for example, to serve at VA hospitals. National service draft civilians will be assigned to help provide day care and other support services to military families.

Because no one will be compelled to participate in the military, we will still have an all-volunteer military, as the Pentagon wants.

However, every American of eligible age who does not want to participate in military service during wartime will have to say why. Every answer will be legally accepted; but every American of eligible age will have to give one, they will have to sign their names to it and their answers will be a matter of record. If they are ever candidates for elected or appointed public office, journalists will be able to look up the answers they gave. That would be a strong incentive for them to give thoughtful and true answers, because they will have to live with their answers.

In order to know when the national service draft should be in effect, we will need an operational definition for this purpose for when we are at war. I propose the following definition for this purpose: if, in any two consecutive months, at least two US soldiers are killed in combat, we are at war, and the national service draft shall be in effect for the following month. US soldiers killed in combat is a category of data kept and made available by the Department of Defense, so this definition should be unambiguous.

Note that a universal time tax is highly progressive, because the richer you are, the greater the opportunity cost of your time. At this writing, 40-year-olds are eligible to volunteer for military service, and therefore 40-year-olds would be subject to the national service draft. That means that some bankers and corporate executives, and other extremely wealthy people, would be eligible for required national service, not to mention their children and family members.

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Since bankers, corporate executives, and other extremely wealthy people have very disproportionate influence in our political system as it now exists, I think this mechanism would be a significant disincentive for the country to go to war, and when we are in a war that is unpopular and dragging on, like the war in Afghanistan, it would increase the pressure to end it.

If you agree that this is a just idea, then the question that remains is how to make it a live proposition politically. And my proposal to do that is this: integrate it into an improved version of the DREAM Act, around which there is already a highly mobilized political constituency.

Recall that among us dwell many young people who have grown up in the US, but cannot go to college or work legally because they do not have documents, having been brought to the US by their parents when they were small. To remedy this obvious injustice, a bill called the DREAM Act was introduced. The version recently rejected by Republicans in the Senate would have allowed these young people to normalize their status if they go to college or serve in the military.

Some objected that these were the choices: if you can’t go to college, you have to participate in the unjust wars.

But in my proposed version of the DREAM Act, these wouldn’t be the choices. In my version, undocumented Americans would be subject to the national service draft. When they’ve completed national service, they get documents. They would not be compelled to serve in the military, but they would be compelled to serve, just like other Americans.

Moreover, in my version of the DREAM Act, no one could plausibly argue that someone was benefiting from special treatment. In my version, during wartime, there wouldn’t be a special “path to citizenship” for a group of undocumented Americans. There would be one path to “citizenship,” in the broad sense, for all Americans of service age. You’re American? You serve. You’ve served? You’re American.

My version of the DREAM Act would bake a bigger pie so that more may eat. Every American who completes national service would get the education benefit, so every American could go to college. And for this purpose, we would count certified vocational training as “college,” so if you want to learn how to build or repair something socially useful, we’ll count that as good as studying neoclassical economics or French literary criticism.

And at a time when officially measured unemployment is almost 10 percent, my version of the DREAM Act would allow the government to soak up some of that unemployed labor and put it to good use.

Let’s call it the Wartime Patriotic Americans National Service DREAM Act, and pass it without delay.

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