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Snohomish County opinion
An obligation to serve
Special to The Times
In the hands of competent elected officials who pursue enlightened and realistic foreign policy, the all-volunteer military is a win-win arrangement for all — the administration, Congress, the military and the American people.
But when incompetent leaders recklessly use the all-volunteer military in pursuit of flawed foreign policy goals, the system's defects begin to hemorrhage and bleed through. In November 2004, seven of my Marines were killed or wounded during the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq.
Those Marines typified the diversity of America itself — a Vietnamese immigrant, a truck driver from Michigan, a Guatemalan immigrant, a heavy-equipment operator from Illinois, a family man from Washington state, a Michigan State University student, and a baby-faced 20-year-old from Texas.
Aside from being proud Marines who bravely fought for their country, another commonality lies beneath the surface — none came from a wealthy background.
The overwhelming majority of the 220 Marines in my reserve company came from places not known for their mansions and country clubs — South Philadelphia; Flint, Mich.; Superior, Ariz.; Battle Creek, Mich.
While two wars rage, where are the children of America's wealthy, powerful and privileged in 2006? They are home, relaxing on plush leather couches, avidly watching "Laguna Beach" and "The Simple Life." They scarcely think about the war in Iraq and their less fortunate peers running combat patrols in Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi. Their parents rest well at night, knowing their children are safe and will inherit the best America has to offer.
Why would the sons and daughters of privilege volunteer to fight in an unpopular and apparently stalemated war in Iraq? There is no reason for them to do so — and they haven't. Their tour in Iraq or Afghanistan has been successfully outsourced to their working class countrymen.
An all-volunteer military, on the surface, appears to be a democratic method for filling our military's ranks. Patriotic, motivated recruits enlist and receive opportunities to better their lives though education and training. The result is a highly skilled, disciplined force of military professionals.
But the very market efficiency of the all-volunteer military unintentionally facilitates a moral rot in our nation's social fabric. Personal sacrifice is the catalyst of character and a prerequisite for good citizenship. The elites, who make and greatly influence our nation's policy decisions, often have no personal connection to our nation's wars. This disconnect, the lack of personal consequence for collective action, allows many to become blasť and apolitical about matters of the greatest national consequence.
America should institute a national service requirement — a universal draft. The requirement should not be exclusively military — not everyone is physically or mentally capable of military service — but almost all citizens can contribute to our country in some way. Young people could have the option of serving in the military, AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, or helping the Border Patrol, working with homeland security or fighting forest fires. Young Americans, from every walk of life, both men and women, should be required to serve their country in some capacity.
A national-service requirement would be an insurance policy, an added sanity check to help protect us from being led into unnecessary wars by incompetent leaders. Before an administration could initiate a preemptive war, the American public — in total — would be more likely to demand a burden of proof for the necessity of military action. When the lives of senators' and business leaders' children are at stake, along with the children of Wal-Mart employees, there is a much greater likelihood there will be adequate debate and hard questions asked before the trigger is pulled.
A national-service draft would be expensive, possibly reduce the military's efficiency, and inconvenience some from pursuing their own self-interest. But would required national service be more expensive than spending hundreds of billions on unnecessary wars? Would the personal burden of required national service outweigh the collective wisdom, maturity and value of citizenship gained by America's youth from the experience?
The Greatest Generation readily shouldered the burden of required national service. With it, they defeated militant fascism, contained communism and went on to build modern America with the values and skills gained from the experience.
Is the current generation equal to the task? I think so.
Christopher H. Sheppard is a former Marine captain who served two tours of duty in Iraq as a combat engineer. He currently is finishing his master's degree in mass communication and lives in Marysville.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company