Bring Back The Draft
I have a simple solution for ending both Philadelphia’s murder crisis and the war in Iraq. Are we brave enough to pull the trigger?
By Tom McGrath
Illustration by Joshua Gorchov PAY ATTENTION TO what’s going on in the world and it will quickly become obvious that there are three major issues facing us as Americans and Philadelphians: 1) the debacle in Iraq, which only grows more debacley every day; 2) the near-genocide of young African-American men on the streets of Philadelphia; and 3) the epidemic of materialism, shallowness and overall Paris Hilton-ness in our most affluent and educated suburbs
Not to get all Richard Nixon on you, but I have a secret plan to swiftly and efficiently end all three problems: Bring back the draft.
Yes, the same military draft that Nixon himself helped abolish 34 years ago. At the time, of course, putting the kibosh on conscription made logical sense — Vietnam was winding down, and the Cold War was thawing. But the move also matched the mood of a country weary of war and wary of anything that smelled like American military power. It was the Me Decade, after all, and pronunciation aside, there is no “me” in “army.”
Three and a half decades later, America finds itself in a very different place — and so do our armed forces. To twist slightly the words of our onetime draft-dodger-in-chief Bill Clinton (not to be confused with our current draft*dodger-in-chief, George W. Bush), the American military today doesn’t look much like America itself. A study of 2005 Army recruits by the National Priorities Project paints a picture of a military that’s predominantly lower-middle-class. Kids whose family incomes are $35,000 are nearly four times more likely to enlist than kids whose families make $150,000 or above. Indeed, the one fact that most experts agree on is that the most successful among us — the 20 percent who go to the best colleges and whose families make the most money — are among the least likely to be part of the Army.
SO WHY CHANGE SOMETHING that, for the affluent at least, has been a pretty sweet deal? For starters, because it will make all of us safer — at least, in the sense that it will put a large dent in Philadelphia’s murder crisis.
Talk to anyone who knows much about life in the inner city, and you’ll hear that what lies beneath much of the destructive behavior in our poorest neighborhoods — from girls getting pregnant when they’re 13 to teenage boys shooting each other when someone looks at them the wrong way — is a blindness to the opportunities in life, or, worse, a lack of faith that those opportunities are really available. Sure, some inner-city kids make bad, dumb choices because they’re bad, dumb kids, but plenty get into trouble simply because they can’t imagine anything better. Mandatory military service would significantly alter that picture. Grab a kid out of the ghetto when he’s 18, and you’ll not only give him a useful dose of discipline, but, far more important, he’ll be exposed to people, places and ideas he likely would never come in contact with otherwise. And then there are the economic and educational benefits. During World War II, 16 million Americans served in the military, and half of them used the G.I. Bill to get a college education and move into the middle class. Just imagine that kind of transformative impact on the inner city.
Is it unseemly to try and save a kid by sticking a rifle in his hand and having him aim it at a Sunni insurgent? Perhaps, but let’s not kid ourselves about the alternatives.
Since 2003, the number of U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq is about one in 350. In Philadelphia during the same period, the number of young black men who’ve been murdered is about one in 70. The tragic irony is that shipping a kid from North Philly to Fallujah may actually make him dramatically safer.
That said, the least fortunate among us shouldn’t be the only ones bearing the burden of war — an argument put forth by New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, who has proposed the return of mandatory military service. Rangel’s reasoning is profound in its simplicity and, to my mind, morally unchallengeable: When a country is engaged in an armed conflict, the sacrifices ought to be shared equally by its citizens; if America’s going to be at war, then all Americans should be fighting that war. Rangel, an opponent of the Iraq invasion from day one, knows full well that what he is really proposing is a not-so-stealthy exit strategy from Iraq. The minute kids from Gladwyne, Greenwich and other affluent outposts are shipped off to Baghdad, their connected, well-*spoken moms and dads will be transformed into an army of Cindy Sheehans — no matter which side of the political aisle they started out on. The war that most of us currently find easy to ignore because it doesn’t touch our daily lives would be over by Christmas.
AS FOR THE AFFLUENT KIDS whom a draft might suddenly put in harm’s way, well, at the risk of sounding harsh, it could serve as a necessary reminder to them that life isn’t only about stellar SAT scores, landing a six-figure job right out of college or scoring an iPhone — that there are people less fortunate than you and ideas and responsibilities bigger than you. Now, I’m not naive enough to think that putting a trust-fund kid in the same platoon with a former crack baby means they’ll suddenly turn into best buddies, but that’s not really the point. They’ll be aware of each other as never before, and for the first time in their lives, they’ll be treated as equals. Which, last time I checked, is exactly what the Constitution says they are.
Some who support the idea of national service might wonder why this needs to be about the military. Couldn’t we give kids the option of doing a year of volunteer work if the army wasn’t for them? In theory this might work, but I think we all know the reality: Before long, the well-off and connected would game the system so their kids end up teaching English to immigrants while poor kids are getting blown up by terrorists in the Middle East. No — a menu of choices may be great at Starbucks, but when it comes to national service, one size has to fit all.
It is, I’ll admit, easy for me to propose this when, at 43, I’m beyond draft age and not going to get my own behind shot off on foreign soil. I’ll grant that — though it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be affected by a draft. My two daughters are eight and five, which means that starting a decade from now, they’d be getting letters from their local draft board. Would I be petrified as they shipped out for their tours of duty? Of course — the same way parents were a generation or two ago, the same way loved ones of our current servicepeople are today, the same way all parents would be if we brought back the draft. The only comfort would come from knowing that some greater good was being done — and that for once, we were all in something together.
Originally published in Philadelphia Magazine, August 2007.
This is one of the greatest ideas I've heard in a long tome. granted it's aimed at 1 city but thik of what it could do for this country.