Land of the Free

[This opinion is a counterpoint to Rusty Pate’s Bring back the draft.]

Instead of a draft, consider an incentive

We live in troubled, turbulent times. Since 9-11, we find ourselves engaged in a global war that seems to have no end in sight, and Americans are dying for causes that some consider dubious. A persistent suggestion by people who oppose the current course, especially in Iraq, is to reinstate the draft as a way of somehow limiting or preventing America’s use of force around the world.

The argument goes something like this: the reason politicians are willing to use military force is because neither they nor the people who are important to them have to serve and, potentially, die. Because they, and most Americans, have no connection to the military, it makes using the military for dubious reasons that much easier.

The problem with this argument is that it ignores a fundamental principle of what makes America what it is. We are a nation of liberty, enshrined in our Constitution, which thrives on the idea that the government’s ability to force its citizens to do anything should be limited to the bare minimum of ensuring freedom for all. A military draft violates the very soul of the ideals of liberty. How can a free society demand its citizens face death on its behalf by the threat of force and violence? Freedom and force seem to be mutually exclusive considerations.

Nevertheless, America also has a problem. Budget cuts, force reductions, and a general unwillingness to serve have all reduced the number of Americans who are serving or have served to all time lows.  Currently, less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military and less than 10 percent of the population has ever served according to the latest data available from the US Census Bureau. Many people know no one who is serving or has served in the military.

This problem extends beyond just military service. The number of people who have served in some sort of public service at any level continues to drop even as the population gets larger. Many people have no sense of what it takes to keep America the strong and free nation that it is today. Without such knowledge, the question remains how America can remain what it is.

One answer is the draft, but a better answer is an incentive, and the best incentive is to create a national program for encouraging people to enter into public service for a period of time in return for a clear pathway to improving themselves through education and training. This incentive should apply not just to military service, but any kind of qualifying local, state or federal service.

This incentive should offer to pay for the full cost of tuition, books, fees, housing, and food to any college, university, or training program a person gains admission to in return for a qualifying period of service. One option would be to provide a year of incentive for every two years of qualifying service. The more service a person does, the more incentive that person receives up to some maximum to be determined.

The advantage of such an incentive program is that it allows anyone to be a volunteer while also appealing to a far greater base of people to serve. People from diverse economic and social backgrounds all have the chance to be a part of what makes America strong a free without the threat of force that a draft presents. Further, both the individuals and the nation as a whole benefits from the experience people who volunteer for such service gain.

Such an incentive program would not take much to enact. America already has a variety of service organizations, from the military to the Peace Corps, which can form the basis for such opportunities for service. In addition, America already has a variety of incentive programs from the GI Bill to Federal Financial Aid. Simple modifications to these programs could expand their scope and their possibility.

There is no doubt that America needs more public service, but drafting Americans into that public service violates what makes America what it is. Instead of forcing people to serve, make it easier for them to do. The results are the same in the end.

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