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Consider a public service draft

Sep. 11, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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As these words are written, polls show most Americans opposed to the military action President Obama wants to take in Syria but most congressmen likely to vote for it.

Maybe we’d be less eager to go to war if we had a draft.

In my lifetime, we’ve changed from a nation that enters a fight reluctantly to one whose institutions seem to demand constant conflict overseas.

We’ve changed from the citizen-soldier to the warrior ethos. We’ve shifted from a draftee to a professional military.

I was born the month Adolf Hitler’s tanks were grinding into Poland — September 1939. The following year the United States instituted a military draft. It lasted from 1940 to 1973.

The draft was imperfect but it worked. Every able American adult male could be called to serve in uniform, and that gave most citizens a personal stake in the outcome on the battlefield.

We won World War II, achieved our purpose in Korea, and prevailed in the Cold War because America’s citizens were personally involved. If the system wasn’t 100 percent fair, at least it was perceived as fair when even Elvis Presley and Willie Mays could be drafted.

We halted the draft out of frustration with our failed adventure in Vietnam.

The American public negotiated a deal with everyone who chose to enlist after 1973. It wasn’t written in ink but the contract went like this: We’ll give you a good career, pay and benefits, family care and a decent retirement if you’ll go fight our wars so our sons and daughters won’t have to.

Today, many Americans have close to zero interest in military matters, including the war in Afghanistan, which was barely mentioned in the heated 2012 presidential election campaign.

Today’s armed forces, with a few exceptions, set a shining example in handling issues of race, gender and — of late — sexual orientation. That’s certainly true in the service branch I know best, the Air Force. But while your military environment today usually may be a model of civility and equality, critics will say it no longer represents the rest of the nation.

If our leaders aren’t going to talk about a war during a presidential campaign, they shouldn’t get us into one. We should enter a war only after a formal declaration by Congress and only with clear goals and total commitment.

As a cultural matter, we need to get away from the idea that a “warrior ethos” is a good thing. Americans should be reluctant warriors.

Given the size of the military and the size of the populace, we can’t have a draft like the one we had before, especially since women would be added today. But the nation could establish mandatory public service for all young people that would include military service for a portion selected at random.

Granted, my proposal for a draft will be a hard sell in 2013. But if my idea won’t work, we need some other proposal to improve the connection between Americans in uniform and those in the civilian world.

Everyone among our citizenry — not just a tiny handful — should have a direct stake every time our leaders decide to go to war.

Dorr, an Air Force veteran, is the author of “Mission to Tokyo.” Find him at

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