Your NPR news source

Why is a four-star general calling for the draft?

SHARE Why is a four-star general calling for the draft?
Lt. Col. Michael Cortez, Commander, 21st Theater Sustainment Command Special Troops Battalion, braces for the down draft from a landing CH-47 Chinook, Kitgum, Uganda, Oct. 16, 2009. (Flickr/US Army Africa)

Calling for a reinstatement of the draft is not exactly a popular political position. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) is one of the few elected officials who has repeatedly come out in favor of conscription, arguing that it would require individuals from all rungs of the economic ladder to sacrifice, not just those at the bottom.

It turns out that Rangel is not alone. The growing chasm between military and civilian populations also has Gen. Stanley McChrystal concerned. McChrystal, who oversaw international forces in Afghanistan, made waves at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month for saying he supported mandatory national service for high school and college graduates.

"I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game," he said. "We've never fought an extended war with an all-volunteer military. So what it means is you've got a very small population that you're going to, and you're going to it over and over again."

Indeed, only one half of one percent of American adults has served on active duty in the last decade. If that sounds small, consider that those years coincided with the country’s two longest wars.

But McChrystal’s argument went beyond military conscription. Citing the need for national unity, the general said he wants a civilian service option. Following McChyrstal’s comments was a flurry of op-eds debating the viability of a national service.

In the New York Times, national security expert Thomas Ricks wrote:

“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.”

What McChrystal and Ricks are calling for is not your parents’ draft but a model that resembles systems in places like Austria, Denmark and Finland where compulsory military service is paired with a civilian option.

On Tuesday’s Eight Forty-Eight, Stanford University’s James Sheehan examines national service systems in other countries, the effect they have on society and what the U.S. can learn from other models. Setting up a massive civilian service wouldn’t come cheap or easy. Given the national paranoia about big government, Sheehan thinks we’re a long way off.

Also weighing in is Aino Miestamo, who provides one-month training to conscripts at Finland’s civilian service center in Lapinjärvi. She says that many of the younger recruits—in Finland, you have until your early 30s to fulfill your service requirements—report that her training course is the first place they have ever openly formed or expressed political views.

While civilian servicemen can find useful work experience during their 11-month stint, she explains why, in her words, “the stereotype [of a non-military recruit] still seems to be a fat, stupid, good-for-nothing, gun-shy mama´s boy with nothing to offer to anyone."

More From This Show