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Published: Saturday, 12/11/2004

Duty and privilege

THE Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute held a conference Monday on the future of reserve military forces. The site was the Union League club.

"The classic French-Renaissance-style League House, which occupies an entire city block in the center of Philadelphia's commerce and cultural district, is listed in the National Historic Register," says the League's Web site. "With its brick and brownstone facade and dramatic twin circular staircases leading to the main entrance, the house dates back to 1865 Inside, the traditional decor is accented in rich leather, wood, and polished marble."

Being inside the club reminded me of how much America's elite has degenerated.

The Union League was founded in 1862 to support the policies of President Abraham Lincoln. On the walls are portraits of prominent Philadelphians who gave their lives fighting for the Union. There are also plaques - with many, many names on them - of Union League members who died fighting in World Wars I and II. You can find similar plaques at Ivy League colleges.

I saw no plaque honoring Union League members who died fighting in Vietnam and subsequent conflicts.

For much of our history, those who have benefited most from living in America felt a special obligation to keep her safe and free. But the most privileged among us are now the Americans least likely to serve their country, and least likely to express gratitude to those who do.

This has long been a burr under the saddle of one of the presenters at the FPRI conference, Northwestern University professor Charles Moskos, America's most prominent military sociologist. Charlie was drafted into the Army in the late 1950s, benefited from the experience, and thinks others of America's "best and brightest" would as well.

Mr. Moskos would dearly love to have the draft reinstated, but recognizes that this is not going to happen. So he's touting a 15-month enlistment option for the armed forces that would be appealing to college students. In exchange for their service, volunteers would receive generous education benefits or repayment of outstanding student loans.

His fellow panelists gave Charlie a hard time, but I think he's on the right track.

My draft number was 363. I'd have gone after women and children. But I dropped out of law school to join the Marines as a private. I had a bunch of reasons - good, bad, and indifferent - for doing so.

But I was doing something my parents and my classmates regarded as insane.

What pushed me over the edge was the two-year enlistment option - I could do my tour and get on with my life - and the G.I. Bill. I wouldn't have joined if I had to sign up for four years or more, or if I didn't have the rationalization that I could always finish law school on the G.I. Bill.

As it turned out, I loved the Corps. It was the best experience of my life. I wound up spending 14 years in the Marine and Army reserves.

We don't need to compel the service of the elite to have an outstanding military. But we ought to encourage it.

Mr. Moskos' plan for a 15-month enlistment would work for military occupation specialties such as military police and infantry where extensive training is not required, if it were coupled with four years of obligated service in a drilling reserve unit. Reserve service is a wonderful part-time job for college students.

Mr. Moskos' plan could be advanced by terminating what he calls "the G.I. Bill without the G.I." The government currently gives low interest loans and sometimes grants to college students in exchange for, well, nothing. The government should provide benefits only in return for service.

This is a sensible reform, but it wouldn't have much impact on the most privileged.

In Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers, only veterans could vote. That goes too far. But suppose we made it a requirement for holding federal elective office that candidates for the House and Senate must have an honorable discharge from the U.S. armed forces?

This would require a constitutional amendment to do, and that would be hard. But it beats trying to bring back an unneeded and unwanted draft just to get the most privileged among us to do their duty. And the principle is sound.

Those who are unwilling to serve should not be permitted to lead.



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