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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Memorial Day is the perfect occasion on which to consider military service. Many veterans of past wars who are being revered today entered the armed services as the result of a compulsory draft, so it’s fitting to revisit the draft in honor of their sacrifices.

Let me say right now that I have a 16-year-old son who would not fit well into the military establishment. A uniform would chaff him in a most unpleasant way. And if home life is any indication, he would bristle in the face of commanding officers. Still, a draft may be just what our nation needs to foment a revival of participatory democracy.

The draft goes beyond military service; it becomes a prod for civic duty. If our nation’s youth were forced into the armed services, the population as a whole would take a much deeper interest and play a more formidable role in how we assign our troops.



What we have now is a mercenary arrangement where military service is a job from which its members derive pay, benefits, and a future through educational and vocational training and opportunities. How many of our soldiers today shoulder their nation’s burden from sheer patriotism? I would guess a fairly small percentage. The fact that our troops are hirelings colors their personal motives as citizens become employees.

In his book, “The Limits of Power,” Andrew Bacevich writes: “A reliance on professional soldiers eviscerates the concept of civic duty, relieving citizens at large of any obligation to contribute to the nation’s defense. … Like mowing lawns and bussing tables, fighting and perhaps dying to sustain the American way of life has become something that Americans pay others to do.”




If the military were made up of draftees, this situation would change dramatically. Not only would our servicemen and women represent a more equitable distribution of social, ethnic, geographical and economic participation, they would be far more invested in the assignments they fill and a lot more evaluative of the rationale behind those assignments.

This awareness would extend throughout the general public as parents from every walk of life consigned their children to military service. Foreign policy would become a heightened area of civic engagement. Political leaders would hear concerns and be held accountable for whatever foreign entanglements put our troops at risk.

Today, with a volunteer military force, most Americans are far removed from the policy decisions that determine U.S. military activities around the world. We assign our generals and commanders to make those decisions, often without sufficient political oversight. The Iraq War is a case in point, where many Americans abrogated their patriotic role as citizens and allowed a misguided war to cost immeasurably in blood and treasure.

When it’s somebody else’s kid who is in harm’s way, it’s easier to ignore or deny the often specious agendas of war hawks fulminating for coercive military actions. Put your own kid in uniform, however, and there is a far better chance that citizen parents will pay closer attention to military planners and their ambitions.

Democracy is enhanced by investing citizens more deeply in America’s role, domestically and internationally. Certainly this was a key lesson of Vietnam, during which a heightened awareness and ramped-up activism influenced an entire generation to question the prevailing authority ” at least as long as their self-interests allowed.

The French philosopher Rousseau warned against dependency on a mercenary army: “There may come a time when the citizens, no longer looking upon themselves as interested in the common cause, will cease to be the defenders of their country.” Mercenary troops, warned Rousseau, can be used in the submission of a free citizenry just as readily as they can be employed otherwise.

I would rather not see my son in uniform, especially if there’s a chance he could be killed or wounded in a war. But I warrant that the parents of conscripted soldiers would be far more vigilant in assessing a bellicose foreign policy ” and its political and military advocates ” than they are today. The draft could be the start of a re-engaged citizenry that could avert war while saving American democracy from death by apathy.