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No such thing as compulsory respect

By Trevor Bothwell
web posted November 22, 2004

In a recent column, conservative commentator Ross Mackenzie offered some pertinent policy recommendations for a second Bush administration. Among other ideas, Mackenzie proposed that the president "[p]ermanentize the Bush tax cuts and eliminate the estate tax," "simplify the tax code," and "[t]rack all illegal aliens (including terrorists) in the United States, and move to temporary-worker cards for legals."

No arguments here.

However, Mackenzie's "biggie" recommendation, in his words, was his suggestion that Bush help to rekindle a sense of service and sacrifice in our young people by requiring all men and women 18-23 to complete "one year of compulsory service with a front-end military component," which would serve as an equivalent to boot camp.

This certainly is a "biggie." And it's also a "baddie."

To be fair, I believe Mackenzie's intentions are in the right place. In fact, I share his concerns regarding a desire to renew a sense of pride in our country, especially when it comes to appreciating the sacrifices made by our armed forces.

But I have grave doubts that this could ever be accomplished artificially. If nothing else, I've always thought one of the neat things about the United States is that we're not North Korea.

For starters, demanding compulsory military service from every young American would be nothing but an experiment, likely one with negative repercussions far outweighing any anticipated positive effects.

On a practical level, the costs associated with implementing a "front-end" boot camp-style requirement alone would be staggering. Among dozens, consider: medical benefits; manpower resources to manage registration, scheduling, and duty arrangements; and logistical elements that would require providing new training facilities and drill instructors, transportation to and from military installations, weapons, uniforms, food, you name it. In light of an already stretched defense budget, increasing spending this dramatically is simply not economically feasible.

And this doesn't even take into consideration the ethical concerns of such a concept. Taken to all-too-realistic extremes, the consequences of a compulsory service policy would be downright tyrannical. Do we begin to arrest hundreds of conscientious objectors? Consider as AWOL those who aren't cut out for boot camp and simply leave before the stress ruins them?

Mackenzie is justifiably concerned about an American military that is currently strained. As he points out, our Army has only 10 active duty divisions, nearly all of which eventually will have been involved in Iraq by war's end. Consequently, he believes the military component of compulsory service would provide a "lightly trained cohort from which the military might draw in times of stress on its regular forces."

But the answer to alleviating the pressures faced by our troops, including overextended National Guardsmen and reservists, is not to punish high school graduates. We should instead focus our attention on replenishing volunteer troop levels that were decimated during the 1990s under President Clinton.

Whereas retaining the option of a military draft is necessary in the event of a national defense emergency demanding immediate and significant force buildup, it is nonetheless a temporary affair. Mackenzie's policy for compulsory military service, on the other hand, would be permanent, becoming a facet of life that would exist both in time of war and peace. Over time, it would necessarily diminish morale, and account for exacerbated attrition even among our voluntary forces, as the service of our men and women would no longer be admired, but simply expected.

Whether we like it or not, feelings of patriotism and appreciation for military service are highly subjective qualities. As with anything, how can we measure objectively what causes one person to love what another hates?

Moreover, it should be common sense that you can rarely force someone to do something he doesn't want to do. Indeed, the most beneficial qualities inherent to an all-volunteer military are the dedication and allegiance it naturally invites, in addition to the honorability it bestows upon a nation. In short, people don't volunteer to fight for an unjust cause. (And for the record, Oliver North has mentioned repeatedly that current re-enlistment levels are as high as ever.)

A commander in chief who strives to earn the respect of his soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines will inspire a sense of service in our young people far quicker than a policy that would require all young women to postpone college for a year in order to strap on combat boots.

Put differently, it was all too common during the Clinton years for commanding officers to distribute memos to their units reminding them not to jeer the commander in chief when he came to visit. Contrast this with the reception George W. Bush received last Thanksgiving during his surprise visit to the troops in Baghdad.

Most importantly, everyday Americans are inspired by the steadfast, brave men and women who volunteer to fight and even die to secure the freedoms of those they don't even know -- the same freedoms that would be systematically eroded were we to cavalierly undercut the integrity of the most powerful military in the world.

You will never be able to force troops to serve and fight with courage and honor, or be able to compel the civilian populace to appreciate it. But you can certainly extinguish the fire in those who do. Just implement compulsory military service and see what happens.

Trevor Bothwell is editor of The Right Report, and he is also a Townhall.com book reviewer. He can be contacted at bothwell@therightreport.com.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Harry Truman had it right by Col. David Hackworth (September 13, 1999)
    Col. David Hackworth says mandatory military service would do America's youth a world of good by putting some iron in their backs
  • They fought for freedom, not service by Steven Martinovich (September 13, 1999)
    Hackworth didn't fight for military service, responds Steve Martinovich, but for freedom
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