Last week, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York made some political waves by proposing that the U.S. government reinstitute the draft. Rep. Rangel, himself a Korean War veteran, has called for such legislation several times in the past, most notably before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While absolutely no one in Washington, including Rangel himself, believes this measure will pass, it does raise some valid points about the nature of service in our country.
As we all know, our military is volunteer-based, not conscription-based. Service in the armed forces appeals to some, and they join on their own volition. That’s an honorable decision to make, but one that increasingly fewer people are choosing. Those that do volunteer often do so because they may have few other employment options that pay a decent wage. A Department of Defense study found that much of the military population is made up of people from the lower-middle income strata, people who may join up because it’s the only way to pay for their own college without going tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in debt. And almost half of the Army – 45 percent – is made up of minorities. Clearly, military service – something that protects all of us – is not spread evenly throughout the population. With the repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan that many Reserves and National Guard members are being forced to take on, putting their lives at risk, we shouldn’t just dismiss Rangel’s suggestion as crazy talk.
Congress will not pass anything like Rangel’s measure because it is unpopular with military strategists and the public. Instead, we believe that the government should encourage and perhaps require service to our nation in other ways. In the 1930s, President Roosevelt began the Civilian Conservation Corps and thousands of volunteers built up the state parks system in Minnesota and across the country. Today, these are a testament to what we can accomplish when we work in the service of our nation. Today, we should pursue similar ends with programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America. While the unsavory possibility of military conscription is going nowhere, working for the good of our nation should not.