As we explore and innovate new solutions to the social and environmental problems we face, sometimes we have to think way outside the box. Where are there assets and resources laying idle, underused, or mis-deployed that could be captured to address our many challenges?
A few weeks ago, Thomas E. Ricks, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and author of the forthcoming book “The Generals,” suggested a provocative idea in the op-ed column of the New York Times – “Let’s Draft Our Kids.” With a headline like that, I usually find something else to focus my attention on. But the idea sounded so wacky I decided to read on. What I read to my surprise made a lot of sense.
Ricks’ piece begins with a quote from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan: “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk,” he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”
Well, that makes sense. Maybe that would lead to less war, one huge waste of resources that could be better deployed if invested in education, infrastructure or training.
Ricks’ proposal is quite simple: a revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school:
1. “Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to.” With enough participants, we could consider providing universal free day care, delivery meals to the elderly, cleaning local parks, or working in school as custodians.
2. “If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.”
3. “Those who don’t want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay — teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.”
Ricks argues that a draft maintaining the size and the quality of the current all-volunteer force would save the government money! Today our military is hugely expensive in part because all of our volunteer soldiers are paid well and they often have spouses and children for whom we provide housing and medical care.
While the program would need to provide protection for union members representing federal, state and municipal workers, the young labor might be a way of preserving existing jobs and benefits for older, more skilled, less mobile union workers.
Insisting that more of us engage in public service may just be an idea whose time has come. It would reduce unemployment, address social programs that are under relentless pressure from chronic budget deficits and utilize precious human and financial resources more efficiently.
Let me know what you think. Is this really a crazy idea?