William Hamilton: Is it time for compulsory national service?
June 29, 2011
Most sitting U.S. presidents wait until election year to launch their re-election campaign. Not so, with President Obama who, watching his plummeting poll numbers, is taking steps to bring his poll numbers back up.
Two examples: Wanting to be perceived as lowering gasoline prices, President Obama is releasing 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Because, at this point, there is no strategic reason for the drawdown, one suspects this is a case of the wrong public policy being used for political gain.
Wanting to be perceived as ending the Afghan War, Obama is accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan so that almost all U.S. forces will be home in time for the November 2012 elections. A case of the correct foreign/military policy, being used for political gain; however, as every military school teaches, a military withdrawal under pressure is the most difficult and dangerous military maneuver of all. So, give Obama credit for withdrawing from the “graveyard of empires” in phases, rather than all at once.
Given two land wars in Europe, three in Asia, and the War on Terror, the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century have been terribly bloody. So, is there something in the American nature that gets us involved in foreign wars?
In the early 1830s, a young Frenchman, Monsieur Alexis de Tocqueville, traveled 7,000 miles through post-colonial America. Subsequently, he wrote the classic: Democracy in America.
Of particular interest is: Chapter XXII: Why Democratic Nations Naturally Desire Peace, And Democratic Armies, War. There M. de Tocqueville explains why democracies such as America prefer peace to war while dictatorships launch aggressive wars.
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But it is M. de Tocqueville’s idea that the armies of democracies desire war that is most intriguing. He posits that the armies of Europe’s dictatorial monarchies were officered by aristocrats who, for the most part, had no desire for upward social mobility. They had their aristocratic titles, which meant more to them than advancing upward through military ranks.
M. de Tocqueville wrote: “Democracies crave peace; however, their armies are staffed with people who cannot advance without war. Thus, it is important that values of the general society and not just the professional military (mercenaries) flow through the military to keep it both wary of war yet, at the same time, able to wage war if absolutely necessary.”
M. de Tocqueville’s suggested remedy is that the overall, civilian society provide a flow-through of officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted personnel in and out of the otherwise totally professional armed forces to ensure that the values, the ethos, of the civilian society are never misunderstood nor forgotten by the professional military and, by the same token, that some of the Duty-Honor-Country ethos of the professional military rub off on the civilian society.
Ergo: In the 1830s, M. de Tocqueville foresaw a great deal of merit in military conscription or, as it later become known, the draft. Surely, M. de Tocqueville envisioned conscription applied in a universal manner and not in the “selective” manner that the draft was applied during Vietnam War to the benefit of the few, and to the detriment of the many.
Could it be that M. de Tocqueville’s observations might come back to life in the form of, say, two years of compulsory national service by young, able-bodied Americans in the military or, alternatively, directing the enthusiasm of youth to the Peace Corps, to the Americorps VISTA Project, to the USA Freedom Corps, or to any number of humanitarian causes that are badly in need of help?
The idea of compulsory national service comes up in Congress now and then; however, it has yet to pass. Maybe it is time to heed what Alexis de Tocqueville was suggesting almost three centuries ago.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.
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