It is Memorial Day in America, a Monday holiday that ends a three-day weekend — a holiday that has come to reflect so much of my nation’s culture.
Once, the day was about sacrifice: honoring the American men and women who gave their lives in military service. But it became mostly about pleasure: barbecue grills, shopping, entertainment and general relaxation.
On this Memorial Day, Americans are fighting in two semi-official wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and participants in a NATO mini-war in Libya. They are volunteers. They are dying and being crippled in significant numbers, and apart from their families and friends in the U.S. they are essentially an afterthought to most of their fellow Americans. They bear the brunt of our government’s penchant for empire. They sacrifice. We grill our burgers.
My generation, the Baby Boomers, rules in Washington these days, and we refuse to cover even the financial cost of their sacrifice. With few exceptions, we’ve chosen to borrow and spend, in mind-boggling amounts. President George W. Bush and Congress pushed the fiscal cost of the Iraq war off the official budget, pretending that we could just toss it on the pile of other debts they and earlier governments had incurred. Under President Obama, the accounting is somewhat more honest but the costs are still being pushed to future taxpayers.
American society has never fully shared the sacrifices its people have undertaken to build a great nation. But the disproportion has become grotesque, deeply wrong. Yes, the men and women of our Armed Forces have volunteered, and they have earned our respect and support. But there have been consequences we’ve rarely considered. Relatively few people shoulder this enormous burden, and the rest of us have let them drift far from our eyes and minds, especially since we’re not even shouldering a financial burden for these wars. Military and non-military families might as well live in different societies, a dangerous cultural divide.
Which is why, among other reasons, that I believe it’s time to restore the military draft. It’s why I believe a new draft should include (and maybe start with) me and my generation — and should be one of many shared sacrifices America undertakes to restore a prosperous and just society. And it’s why I will vote for any political candidate, of any party, who says these things out loud and promises to vote accordingly.
Granted, my cohort is too old for combat. No amount of training could put us in the kind of physical shape needed for that job. But we’re not too old to do many of the other jobs the military needs done. Military effectiveness is more than ever about brains than brawn. A good programmer or logistics expert serves differently, but those are enormously important skills.
There are millions of Boomers who could ably handle the rear-echelon tasks that the military spends vast energy and money to train 18-year-olds to do, and we could do them better. I wouldn’t like it, but if my number came up in a truly level draft — a draft that didn’t distinguish by age or financial station — I’d willingly go to Afghanistan to serve in any capacity that was useful, even if that was to write press releases.
The Boomer generation is loaded with talent. Consider all of the geniuses who operate Wall Street’s investment banks. Few of them have served, but surely the nation would be well served if we asked them to temporarily divert their energies to screwing our enemies instead of their clients and the American public. I’d be especially glad to see a draft that included hawkish commentators and members of Congress who are so proud to see other people’s children heading to war zones.
A draft would probably also save money. Today, taxpayers are borrowing countless billions to spend on highly paid “private security contractors” — the mercenary forces that fill the gaps we refuse to fill by not fielding fully equipped forces either in manpower or materiel. Sharing sacrifice would mean drafting men and women to serve at standard military wages.
To anticipate just a few of the objections to this idea, let me raise two obvious ones. First, the volunteer forces have been successes in many ways, especially the leg up they’ve given young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Military service has provided training, confidence and leadership skills to people who honor us and their nation by serving. The answer to this, of course, is a program of national service — a requirement that everyone spend a year or two in some capacity that America needs. (That’s a topic for another piece in this series.)
Another issue is what happens to older people’s income, not to mention their jobs, when they serve in a truly comprehensive military draft. We don’t want people heading off to Afghanistan and defaulting on their home mortgages. Asking a small business to preserve at least some income and positions would plainly require subsidies. But large companies already have enormous advantages; I’d require them to a) pay a portion of the difference between a military salary and what the employee was making; and b) to hold the position, or an equivalent one, open for the employee’s return. Sharing sacrifice, remember?
This argues, of course, for starting with the people who need subsidies the least, especially those who’ve inherited or made so much money already that even a 24-month major reduction in income would be barely noticeable. People whose incomes in recent years have been subsidized by the rest of us — such as Wall Street bankers — would be great candidates.
I know there are a thousand other problems with this suggestion. But I’m certain they are not show-stoppers. When Americans put their minds to creative problem-solving, we tend to find answers.
I honor our military men and women, people who have joined a tribe that the rest of us barely recognizes except on special days of the year and when they either make huge mistakes or claim big victories. But we dishonor them, and undermine our nation, with our unwillingness to face up to the true cost of war or to share the sacrifices more broadly; it’s easier to pursue war when we don’t bear the burden ourselves.
The majority of Americans who fear we are headed in the wrong direction are not stupid. They see a future entirely unlike the one they faced as young adults. The Boomers know in their guts that their children are likely to be worse off, not better off, than themselves. And they know who’s largely responsible: the generation that followed World War II’s “Greatest Generation,” a cohort that will someday be remembered as the Selfish Generation.
Unless. Unless we get honest with ourselves, at long last — and say the truth out loud as a society, and then act on it. Do we have leaders who will be honest with us?
The truth is, America is in clear and present danger, not just of decline but a frighteningly rapid descent into Second World status. We are in danger of turning this greatest experiment in self-governance into a corrupt, bankrupt, and violently polarized society.
So let’s reinstate the draft, as Step One in the generation of shared sacrifice Americans will have to make. (Step Two, perhaps: Raise taxes to pay for these wars as we fight them.) Something called the United States of America will survive even if we don’t. But that nation will not be the America most of us want.