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In this time of political party bickering, biased news outlets, television ads, debates and seemingly endless supply of polls conducted by everyone ranging from college professors to pimply faced thirteen year olds with their own blogs, every issue- moral, economic, national defense and judicial to name a few- are up for debate and everyone is an expert on each subject and has a passionate opinion pertaining to each subject. Each of these concepts or elements that make up our country, and the strong opinions that many have in regards to each, all lead to a fundamental desire that this writer believes nearly everyone possesses; progression to a better state of mind, body, country and world. In that vein; that is, the strong opinions and ideas of what practices may lead us to that progression, a memory of a statement once made to the writer is brought to the forefront. “All of our problems would be solved if every brat had to serve.” This bold statement, spoken with slightly slurred words and coated in Canadian whiskey was uttered by the writer’s grandfather; a stern, conservative man that himself had served twenty-seven years in the armed forces and had seen action in World War II, Korea and Vietnam before being forced into retirement by officers that had grown tired of his cantankerous and drunken demeanor. This strong statement has always drawn the writer’s curiosity; plenty of politicians, military officers and ex hippies have all pitched in their own two cents on the subject of conscription, that is, mandatory military service yet the question still remains as to which side is correct in their assertion; is mandatory military service beneficial or harmful to our society?
73 countries around the world currently practice some form of conscription; some enforce mandatory military service terms while others require some form of civil, rather than military, service. One of the earliest debates on the issue occurred in Edwardian Britain at a time of great disconcertment; for all eyes warily looked to the Germans. Other countries, such as France, Russia and Japan had already eagerly implemented compulsory military service in an attempt to rapidly build a worthy force to battle the dark cloud of impending doom that in the early 1900’s, was Germany. The people of Britain watched as these countries continued to build their respective forces and a panic began to arise; whispers at the possibility of conscription became urgent cries; some arguing for the need to quickly build the military force by whatever means necessary others arguing that the government, with its considering of conscription, was on the brink of implementing policies that went against the very fabric of what Britain was and would be. With tensions mounting and fears becoming more rooted in reality a bitter fight ensues.
In his article “The Case for Conscription” author and historian Tom Stearn recalls and recounts the bitter legislative battle that took place and the questions that arose pertaining to patriotism, defense and masculinity. Aside from the seemingly sensible argument that because Germany was utilizing a compulsory military service policy and as a result had a large military, it would greatly behoove Britain to increase the size of its forces to avoid becoming a target. Much of the propaganda also centered on the concepts of patriotism and masculinity. In his article, Stearn explores the work of George F Shee, an Imperialist and author of “The Briton’s First Duty: The Case for Conscription.” Written in 1901 when the talks of compulsory service were just beginning to be heard again throughout Britain after a series of humiliating military defeats, the book is in essence a strong message based in emotion rather than fact. Shee writes, “Compulsory service would also be a panacea, countering moral degeneration and physical deterioration and transforming hooligans into patriotic citizens” (Shee 4). Furthermore, Shee writes, “Conscription would counteract an evil tendency to softness, indiscipline and unmanliness” (Shee 4). As Stearn recalls in his article, the efforts of Shee and many others would be to no avail as the people ultimately rejected the idea of compulsory service primarily because, as Stearn writes, “Compulsory training was neither militarily necessary nor politically feasible” (Stearn 3). However, the propaganda did have at least some impact in the minds of many people; after all, the dark cloud of doom still existed, and the idea of a society of handsome, masculine warriors standing on guard prepared to defend Britain from all of her enemies was a comforting thought to many. Whether this thought was rooted in reality was insignificant; which is, of course, often the purpose of good propaganda.
More recently, in 2002, university professor Bruce Chapman wrote an article for the research department at Brookings Institution entitled “A Bad Idea Whose Time is Past: The Case Against Universal Service.” In the article Chapman argues that compulsory service “Was never a good idea, and it grows worse with time. It fails militarily, morally, financially and politically” (Chapman 2). Two of these ideas are of particular interest: moral and financial. Chapman asserts that compulsory service with mandated service terms actually cost the government more money than it is worth. “The average required term of service in countries that enforce conscription is just over a year and a half. By the time these new recruits are trained in a particular specialty it would be time for their mandated service to be up” (Chapman 3). In this Chapman is suggesting that the thousands of dollars that it costs the government to feed, house, clothe, and train the average recruit would ultimately be worthless if after nine months of training the recruit only has nine months remaining on their enlistment and would be receiving a paycheck and educational benefits over the course of those nine months. In addition to these harsh financial realities, Chapman points to the moral implications of compulsory service. “Service isn’t service to the extent that it is compelled” (Chapman 5). Chapman explores the idea that service to our country that is mandatory is not service by subservience and will ultimately pit the haves against the have nots as it did during the draft decades ago; the upper class will go to college or abroad to avoid service while the rest of the people will be left shouldering the patriotic burden.
Contrarily, in his article “Service should be the norm: America’s Youth Need a ‘Right’ of Passage”, author William Raspberry offers a different perspective; one that suggests that military service is not a rite of passage but a “right” of passage to that needs to be earned by our youth. His arguments are not based on military or war strategy, but on the progression of our youth to responsible, productive adults; and that progression to adulthood is a right to be earned through service. Raspberry states “If young people are responsible for earning the right of adulthood, then adults are responsible for providing the opportunities for it to happen. We need to stop trivializing growing up” (Raspberry 3). It seems to be Raspberry’s assertion that we all, including our youth, have inherited certain liberties that our particular country provides and must somehow earn or pay back what we have inherited through strong patriotism and service. While this sounds like a conservative argument it is in essence the same as the more liberal notion of those who have must give to those who have not; the Robin Hood theory. Isn’t our entire culture based on earning a right of some sort? Generally speaking, you must work and pay into Social Security for a number of years and be near death before you can enjoy the benefits it provides. Isn’t that what a pension is? Something that must be earned? Perhaps conservatives and liberals have more common ground than they imagine.
In regards to the subject of conscription both viewpoints offer intriguing logic; Stearn’s article addresses concerns of masculinity and lawlessness and a general sense of dread amongst the people who fear vulnerable amidst the growing military forces of enemies; Chapman’s perspective asks the reader to evaluate the moral and financial ramifications of compulsory service and Raspberry asserts that we must earn our place through service. Many ideas and
considerations were brought to the table by the aforementioned authors but none of the authors answered a very important question: Do the viewpoints on compulsory service change in war time? Is it more acceptable to enforce mandatory service if we are at war as we did over four decades ago? Then, is it understandable to place a young person in the line of fire? In the name of patriotism? I am not surprised to discover that not one-not a single one- of the authors with such strong opinions served in the military themselves so they cannot possibly answer these questions because the answers to the questions are unimaginable to the ignorant. Suppose for a moment that you have a young man of 18. He just graduated high school; he was a stud, a jock, he was somebody. That is, he was somebody in school. Now, he’s just another person; overwhelmed with life’s choices and seeking a direction of progression. His grandfather used to tell him that the Army had made a man of him; perhaps it will do the same for him. Furthermore, he will prove his masculinity further by joining not the Army but the Marine Corps. All is well with the young man as he makes new comrades, fires a rifle for the first time, makes the acquaintance of several exotic dancers at the urging of his comrades and even earns a bit of pocket money in the process. All is well indeed; that is, until the veil is pulled back and it is revealed. The young man that has never fired a rifle is now in hell; or as others call it Fallujah.
After days of thunder and lightning; or mortars and gunfire, he cannot hear. That is not an exaggeration; he cannot hear, mouths move but no words are audible; although fewer mouths move by this point because five of the seven men that he attended boot camp with and ultimately deployed with were now dead. One of them, Caro, burned alive in the seat next to the young man
in the Humvee. From time to time the young man would smell real or imagined burning flesh in the air and vomit violently. Lives are lost; some by his own hand, some simply in his presence. Some lives are mourned in death, others are cursed and spat upon. The young man has lost himself; he has become what he despises. The rest of the war passes leaving him with no recollection; he’s home now, the souls of both his fallen comrades and the “enemy” hang over his head as a dark cloud would; he has still yet to find the direction of his progression. What he has found is an elixir that silences the screams of a distant, unclear memory. He is alone; for he often makes others uncomfortable with his night terrors and sudden recollections; but for him this is fine. One day it will all be over. Despite the alcoholism, flashbacks, fallen comrades, night terrors, depression and isolation there is one point of pride he can count on: He earned his “right” to suffer.
Obviously this is not what the authors had in mind through their analysis of economic and moral viewpoints. In the instance of my own experience, my service was, of course, completely voluntary; I bring it to light only to vividly paint the picture of the human experience rather than the economical one. Perhaps compulsory service does produce more responsible citizens; perhaps it produces tormented ones as well. It could be that compulsory service is not a financially sound move; it could also be detrimental to the health of our youth. My purpose is not to argue a position as the rationale of both sides is understandable; my purpose is to ensure that
while we consider the question of whether compulsory service is harmful or beneficial to our society, we do not forget to consider all aspects; not just the surface ones. Unlike the financial or the logistical, the emotional affect is much more difficult to gauge.
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