Everybody knows that something is wrong with America. A nation divided against itself, with an ever-increasing abyss between the rich and the rest, with politicians who put party loyalty above all else… America is filled with individualists who lack the values associated with notions of patriotism, loyalty and serving a higher cause.
Dana Milbank has thought it through and has come up with a solution as simple as it is impractical: bring back compulsory military service.
Many young people now take a gap year between high school and college. They use it to travel the world and to find themselves. What if they were to spend a year in the military?
For those who will not go to college, a year in the military would surely beat a year hanging around on the streets looking for a job.
Today’s America being today’s America the program would have to apply to both men and women. Moreover, it would have to contain an opt-out clause: those who wished could do their service by helping America’s disadvantaged.
The latter qualifier makes the program even more unrealistic. It’s one thing to draft a large number of young people into short-term military service. It’s quite another to send an army of young people to do jobs that are already being performed by others.
If the program contains a social service option, the nation’s young people would immediately divide themselves into the grunts and the do-gooders.
Milbank knows it’s not going to happen. In that he is surely correct. But that does not prevent him and should not prevent us from evaluating his idea.
How much of America’s current problems are caused by the fact, as Milbank points out, that fewer and fewer members of Congress have done military service?
Some will call it a correlation, but I agree with Milbank that it has more to do with causation.
In either case, a Congress filled with people who have never served in the military barely functions:
Because so few serving in politics have worn their country’s uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest. They have forgotten a “cause greater than self,” and they have lost the knowledge of how to make compromises for the good of the country. Without a history of sacrifice and service, they’ve turned politics into war.
Interestingly, Milbank speaks about compromise and the language of civic virtue. Military service teaches people how to put the collective good ahead of individual self-interest. It teaches values like discipline, decorum, propriety, teamwork and respect for authority, among others.
It also inculcates pride in country, in its values and achievements.
For a cohort of young people who have been spoon-fed self-esteem and taught to deride their nation it would surely be a great improvement.
A culture of narcissistic self-esteem has fostered a politics where it’s us-against-them, where the other party is not the loyal opposition but is an enemy that must be destroyed.
Moreover, in a culture where no one really knows the rules, military service teaches people how to follow rules and how to be responsible to others and for others. In a culture where inequality is becoming more and more extreme, military service levels things out.
A few countries, like Switzerland and Israel still have mandatory military service, but most no longer do.
Milbank describes what happens in Switzerland, where they are not doing it in order to ensure their military capability, but in order to make of several cultures, one:
On Sept. 22, the Swiss voted 73 percent to 27 percent to keep their conscription army. It has less to do with security than with national identity in a land of 26 cantons and four official languages.The government argued that military service teaches people “how to live and work with compatriots from all regions, all linguistic groups and all social strata,” which “contributes enormously to the national cohesion.”
In Switzerland, the sons of bankers and farmers alike do basic training for several months and then are recalled to service for brief periods.
Milbank knows that we cannot afford it. Yet, he is correct to measure the costs against the potential benefits:
The costs would be huge. But so would the benefits: overcoming growing social inequality without redistributing wealth; making future leaders, unlike today’s “chicken hawks,” disinclined to send troops into combat without good reason; putting young Americans to work and giving them job and technology skills; and, above all, giving these young Americans a shared sense of patriotism and service to the country.
But, is money really the impediment? If the notion seems completely foreign, isn't that a symptom of the fact that the values instilled by military service have become increasingly foreign to far too many Americans?
Milbank does not say it, but our nation finds itself in this bind because the current culture has systematically repudiated the values that define military service.