Our New Debate on National Service and the Draft


            Since the terrorist attacks last September (2001), Charles Moskos (a sociology professor and chairman at Northwestern University) has authored several stimulating pieces regarding his case for resuming the draft and about the renewed interest in national or public service and volunteerism.  In the November 2001 Washington Monthly with “Now Do You Believe We Need a Draft” (and in the November 4, 2001 Washington Post) Dr. Moskos openly argued that young Americans were not, contrary to media perception, readily volunteering to join the military. He also claimed that an overwhelming additional need exists for people to fill new domestic security positions, such as at airports, borders or nuclear power plants.

In the Spring 2002 The Public Interest, Moskos, with “Reviving the Citizen-Soldier,” confronted the civilian reader with the need to accept increased military casualties and emphasized the case for short-term enlistments. In all cases he has stressed the ukase to induce youths from more privileged social classes to serve.  For example, he proposed in the Public Interest article, “Bring back a draft that starts conscription at the top of the social ladder or establish recruitment appeals that will garner some share of privileged youth.” The December 2001 American Enterprise published a counterpoint between Charles Moskos and Lawrence Korb on draft proposals, and in that debate Moskos took the position that the draft could remain male-only.
            On September 14, 2001, immediately following the major terrorist assault on New York and Washington, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-Michigan) suggested on CNN that the military draft should be reinstituted. According to a CNN poll that tragic week, 66% of Americans favored resumption of the draft if necessary to combat asymmetric terrorist warfare.  However the Pentagon has consistently maintained some distance from such a proposal.[1]  On September 19, 2001, White House spokesman Ari Fleisher stated, “There is no consideration of...(reinstating the draft)...at this time, and from my conversations with the Pentagon, it's not something they anticipate.”  On September 25, 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference,  “(The draft)...is not something that we've addressed and it is not something that is immediately before us. At the moment I do not foresee the need to do that.”  Tim Cavanaugh made light of draft resumption cries in a whimsical missive in the February 2002 Reason.[2]   Richard Sincere, from Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty, argued on GLIL’s message board aptly,  “What military professionals want is a lean, mean, highly trained killing machine.  To the top brass at the Pentagon, draftees are just ballast that needs to be fed, housed, clothed, and nannied. In other words, wasted resources.”

          There have been other recent suggestions for the draft, often with an option of alternative civilian national service. For example, on the December 31, 2001 “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” on Public Broadcasting, Robin Gerber from the University of Maryland advocated a mandatory national service obligation to be fulfilled some time between the ages of 18 and 24.  In “Hot Careers in a Cool Market: Ask Not What Business Can Do for You; Ask What You Can Do for Business,” Jim Thompson and Mike Woodward wrote that employees with computer data encryption skills tend to be young and of draft age, and that companies now worry that key people “could one day be called up by the military,” apparently even if not already in the Guard, the Reserves or from ROTC programs.  This comment is an open admission that an expectation that the draft (as well as more reserve call-ups) might be resumed during the war on terrorism is now being taken seriously by some employers.[3] On September 23, 2001, Vance Opperman, writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, suggested that middle-aged people be drafted for homeland security duties.  The Supreme Court has accepted the idea that a draft is constitutional even when male-only (such as Rostker v. Goldberg, 1981).
           My own drilling into the facts about the practical need (let alone philosophical acceptability) for a draft or other compulsory service would raise serious questions. For example, the Transportation Security Administration published job qualifications for new better-paid airport security professionals, and one requirement (beyond a clean background investigation and citizenship) would be at least a year in security experience or practical work with screening or X-ray equipment. They really don’t need “everybody.” [However, as of August 2002 the TSA was allowing that a high school diploma can substitute for security experience, for Transportation Security Screeners and even for Lead Transportation Security Screeners.[4] Of course, the employment screening process prefers specific security experience, and the training program to follow is very rigorous.[5]] 

But the government has for decades nurtured rather covert programs to train lay person “civilian reservists” for emergency duty in the wake of unexpected domestic disaster.  Security in any conceivable vulnerable area, ranging from border patrols to radiological substance detection and to Internet worms and viruses requires trained, dedicated, well-compensated professionals.
            Since American society has gradually become more individualistic, today’s younger adult generation tends away from awareness of the possibility of a draft even though draft registration cards (for 18-25 year-old males) are offered conspicuously today in United States post offices.  Nixon stopped the active draft in 1973; there was some discussion of resuming it during the Carter administration when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979 (the legal warrant for Congress or president to enact it was restored), but otherwise there was little public attention to future military conscription until the terrorist attacks. As Shanker pointed out, an earlier military service act has expired and Congress would again have to authorize resuming the draft.

 In fact, however, the Selective Service System (http://www.sss.gov/) has remained in business, and is quite open to answering questions from the general public. For example, The Selective Service office in Arlington, Va. shared with me a 1994 memo from the Clinton administration that a contingent authority to draft was still needed because the military services could find themselves suddenly without sufficient medical personnel—an idea reinforced now by concerns about bioterrorism. Another area of severe shortage is military personnel, particularly in the special forces in the field today, with fluency in non-European languages.  
          During the Vietnam era the personal risk of military service was a controversial issue for draftees. Student deferments were available for several years (until a lottery was instituted) and these became a source of political and moral discontent. Persons with technical education generally could get Military Occupational Specialties with less combat risk, often (as in my case) even if drafted.  At earlier times (until Vietnam escalated in 1965) married fathers and even married men without children could be deferred (“Kennedy fathers” and “Kennedy husbands”).  
          One point of interest to me is that the Moskos pieces do not refer the earlier controversy about gays in the military.  Moskos had made himself a major architect of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy adopted in 1993 and 1994 regarding homosexuals in the military. For eight years, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a legal services organization that I have supported, has helped uniformed servicemembers chased by misdirected or bad-faith enforcement of this policy by the Armed Forces.

  The “military gay ban” is a convoluted topic, still worthy of a separate detailed treatment in public policy journals, but in the context of discussions about a draft, two observations are important.  First, the policy may be interpreted now as an insult or a source of shame for gay men in particular, because it insinuates that gay men burden the country and cannot (as a matter of law, almost) pay their dues (as  potential “citizen-soldiers”) with regard to citizenship and therefore would cheat the system.  Second, if the draft were re-implemented, there would be temptation by government and associated industries to use it to justify new discrimination against gays, men especially.

 Personally, I rather pooh-pooh the idea that people will “get away” with “coming out” to avoid being drafted. I raised this issue with Moskos last November in a private email, and he wrote back, incredibly, “Gays must come out for conscription. Then the ban would be lifted.”  Other national service programs (which obviously might become “choices” in lieu of the Armed Forces) such as the Peace Corps do not exclude gays, although the practical circumstances of service (particularly overseas) often may require a “don’t ask don’t tell” paradigm for deportment.[6]  
           My own personal history becomes relevant now. I was booted out of the College of William and Mary in 1961 for telling the Dean of Men that I thought that I was gay, and the reasoning used to justify my “medical” dismissal was the same that Sam Nunn and Charles Moskos articulated about gays in the barracks during the 1993 debates.  Expecting blackballing and discrimination during this post- McCarthy, Cold War era, I managed to recover from this setback, graduated from another college and graduate school, and actually served in the Army from 1968-1970 without incident after “volunteering for the draft.”  I was “sheltered” during my service and avoided Vietnam. While other inductees speculated about “getting infantry,” I recall a day in Basic Training when a sergeant called out, regarding my application for a particular MOS, “hey, you missed a college grad.”  
          Conservative publications have stimulated intermittent discussions about the limits of  “self-ownership.” During the stock market insider trading scandals of the late 1980s (long before Enron and Anderson) some commentators called for mandatory national service as a way to teach young adults ethics in an otherwise brutally competitive society. In recent years we have anticipated a crisis in custodial eldercare, as families become smaller, adult children move away and nursing homes become overwhelmed with elderly persons no longer able to fend for themselves.  These examples underscore the renewed assertion that practical social obligations, not just those related to military service, go along with life’s freely chosen paths. Perhaps the past couple of generations, even mine, have gotten off easy.

ãCopyright 2002 by Bill Boushka

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[1] Tom Shanker, “Who Will Fight This War?” The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2001.

[2] Tim Cavanaugh, “Service Economy: First-draft Suggestions for a Real Draft Proposal,” Reason, Feb. 2001, p. 21.

[3] Jim Thompson and Mike Woodward, “Hot Carrers in a Cool Market: Ask Not What Business Can Do for You but What You Can Do for Business,” Computer User, Jan. 2002, p. 13.

[4] The TSA has, as of summer 2002, started hiring screeners with a great sense of urgency, presumably to comply with new federal laws. So now Moskos could be right; it could be very difficult to staff the available screening and supervisory positions with properly experienced individuals.

[5] Vist http://www.airsafe.com/issues/security/screener.htm

“Requirements for Airport Security Screeners”

home page http://www.airsafe.com/

Here is the Transportation Security Administration’s web reference on job qualifications (as of August 2002):


The Transportation Security Administration is part of the Department of Transportation.


[6] There have been some controversies about pat- down searches, but the DOT/TSA (Transportation Security Administration) does not have a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy or ban on gays for security screening jobs on the theory that passengers would object or perceive an invasion of privacy. I have attended one of the assessments, found the procedure to be moderately regimented, with applicants not allowed to leave the center while being tested. Presently, the TSA expects applicants to interpret the personnel policies stated on its web site literally without exception, somewhat in a military-like manner. Applicants who would be uncomfortable with the possibility of having to perform pat-downs should not apply, although they are not specifically asked about this.