The last time the federal government drafted young men to serve in the military was 1973. Nearly half a century later, one Democrat running for president is dusting off an old idea and rebranding conscription for a new generation.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently released his plan for a robust national service program, calling for expansion of AmeriCorps and new service programs to focus on climate change, community health and mentorship.
Buttigieg is one of the few military veterans running for president, and he thinks the federal government could ease the nation’s social and political tension by putting young people of different backgrounds together to work on community projects for a year.
The stated goal is “a universal, national expectation” that every high school graduate will participate in a government-sponsored service program. Buttigieg imagines a country in which “where did you serve?” is the first question asked of college freshman and new employees.
The campaign materials stop short of calling the program mandatory, but it’s not clear the candidate has any aversion to outright conscription.
“If we really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era, one thing we could do that would help change that would be to make it, if not legally obligatory, then certainly a social norm that anybody, after they’re 18, spends a year in national service,” Buttigieg said during an MSNBC interview in April.
Instead of “if not legally obligatory,” Buttigieg could have simply said “not legally obligatory.”
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When interviewer Rachel Maddow suggested such a program might have to be mandatory, Buttigieg did not take the opportunity to make clear his program would strictly be voluntary.
This is not a new idea. Many countries impose mandatory military service, which can include many non-combat-related roles. Americans had this debate not long ago.
Former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, who was a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, led a charge to create a universal service program.
Hart lamented that the military was spending too much of its budget on personnel, because too few young people were willing to enlist. His solution was to build a bigger draft infrastructure, to include both military and non-military service.
“There may come a time when our country will have to resume some form of conscription. Before that happens, it would make sense to put in place a program of universal national service in which all young people would be given the option of serving in either a military or non-military capacity,” Hart wrote in a 1985 New York Times column, co-signed by then-U.S. Rep. Robert Torricelli.
Hart never assembled enough support to move his proposal forward. Quite the opposite of Hart’s vision, there now is a serious debate about getting rid of mandatory Selective Service registration altogether.
Short of universal service, a public option for short-term employment — more AmeriCorps and Peace Corps positions, without any legal or social pressure to participate — might be an investment worth considering. Interestingly, the Buttigieg campaign notes that most applicants to those programs are turned away because there are not enough spots.
But if the national service program relies on implicit or explicit coercion — a “universal expectation,” as Buttigieg puts it — it is antithetical to American values.
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Buttigieg’s plan would make the central government — not families, churches, local communities, the academy or other social institutions — the focal point of young adult’s socialization and personal development.
Implicit in his proposal is the idea that a 18-year-old’s life plans matter so little that they can be disrupted for 12 months by the government. Young Americans would be cogs in a grand “social cohesion” experiment, rather than free individuals capable of making their own career choices.
You can dress up conscription and give it a focus-group-tested name, but it will still be conscription.
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