Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tries to give the impression that the proposal to add 92,000 soldiers and Marines to the active duty force is the solution to our worldwide security challenges. So, let’s put this into perspective: Even with that increase, only one-half of one percent of our population is on active military service. This means that you would have to knock on 200 doors to find onehome of a selfless American who is serving this Republic. Is this any way to defend ourselves?
The Second World War started long before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Although we sent millions of dollars of material support to our allies in their futile resistance to Nazi aggression, we didn’t enter the fray until the war in Europe was already almost three years old. That was nothing compared to Asia, where the war was raging for about a decade before we reluctantly started fighting. We really don’t like to go to war unless we absolutely, positively have to.
However, after the Pearl Harbor attack, and until we defeated the Axis, more than 16 million Americans served in uniform. That was more than 10 percent of the population at the time, twenty times the rate of military service we have today. On 9/11, we were attacked on our homeland again, in fact geographically closer to most Americans than in 1941, and yet we can’t seem to generate the same dedication to defense as we did 65 years ago.
Part of the problem is that we’ve been sold a bill of goods. Told for decades that technology has made us free, that highly accurate weapons and a massive nuclear capability are cheap and effective substitutes for millions of patriotic American 20-year-olds, it’s now patently obvious to the casual observer that we have deluded ourselves. And because only a small handful of dedicated kids (and older Reservists and Guardsmen, too) believe that the responsibility is theirs, we are now more at risk than at any time in our history.
What’s wrong with universal national service? Well, nothing, as long as it’s truly universal. During the war in Vietnam, we had a draft, but it was highly selective, and most of my generation (including almost all of today’s national leaders) managed to slip through the loopholes to dodge it. Unfortunately, the ill-conceived decision to send some of our scarce military resources to Iraq doesn’t help to develop much enthusiasm to defend ourselves.
There are lots of ways to make universal service palatable and minimally disruptive. But unless and until all of us are committed to participate in our own defense, we will continue to rely on the miniscule number of Americans who understand the value of selfless service.