In theory, the idea of national service–making all young people donate a year or two to serve the country–sounds great. It has been endorsed by liberal and conservative luminaries alike. So why hasn’t it happened? Put another way: Why hasn’t the draft been revived since it expired in 1973?
Part of the obvious reason is that Americans are intensely individualistic and resist forced labor even at the government’s behest unless there is some pressing national emergency. There was indeed such an emergency during World War II and the height of the Cold War–but there isn’t now. That is not to say that we don’t face threats, but we have found since the 1970s that we have no trouble filling the military’s ranks with high-quality volunteers.
That has not stopped various thinkers from coming out with national service schemes. The military writer Tom Ricks has a particularly inventive approach on the New York Times op-ed page today. He understands that there is no way the military could possibly incorporate four million 18-year-olds every year; there are only 1.4 million active-duty personnel in the entire U.S. armed forces. So he proposes that some of the 18-year-olds could choose 18 months of military service that would not involve the possibility of combat: “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.” As for the rest, they 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.”