Charles Rangel of New York has been in the news for two reasons in recent years. First, for allegations of corruption concerning a Puerto Rico vacation spot, a story that gave readers of New York City tabloids an indelible snapshot of a dozing Rangel at the beach. Second, the Congressman is in a difficult primary battle in his district.
He should be better known for a piece of legislation he has sponsored in several different sessions of Congress, never to any avail. Known as HR 5741, it would essentially reinstate a service draft for Americans from the ages of 21 to 42, thus ending the all-volunteer military force that has fought wars for us since the latter years of Vietnam.
It is Memorial Day, the best of moments to weigh how well — or how poorly — we apportion the military burdens of defending American interests.
Without a draft, we are given a great and dangerous luxury: we are, in the main, able to consign our war fighting to a largely isolated force of brave volunteers. The military is a noble calling, and many choose to serve for many different reasons. Whether it is because of family tradition or because a recruit has few other options in life for socioeconomic reasons, the result is that the majority of Americans have little direct connection with the military.
Without that direct connection, the politics of war are inescapably different than what they would be if the children of the most influential families in communities across America were at risk of being drafted to face fire at the front.
It is difficult to imagine that the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq would have been conducted in the ways they were (and still are) if a large-scale draft had been in effect in America since 2001.
(PHOTOS: Battleland Diary, May 11–18)
This is a long-running debate in policy circles, and there are sundry studies and proposals about systems of military and civilian national service in exchange for student loans and other GI Bill–type benefits. (The arguments put forward in a 2005 Washington Monthly piece by Phillip Carter and Paul Glastris is a good place to start a study of the question. William F. Buckley Jr. also argued for voluntary service in his book Gratitude.)
It is true that the military leadership has long opposed a draft, but that view, while important, should not foreclose a debate about the issue. And there is no doubt that we have enough national needs at home, particularly in schools, that a civilian program of service, implemented well, would be a boon for poorer communities.
Say a prayer today, then, for the war dead, and for those who are standing watch now. And then tomorrow let’s set to work to share the burden of defending what we have, and improving who we are.