Our current election cycle has brought up a wide variety of unique ideas with some historical backing. Unfortunately, a once-buried idea has gotten more attention than it deserves: compulsory military service.
This isn’t a completely new idea; plenty of countries already have some form of compulsory service, from Israel to Cuba to Singapore.
“I was ... in charge of a battery of about 90+ guys running 15+ vehicles of the HIMARS system,” said Tobias Egold, an undeclared freshman. Egold was an officer in the Singapore Armed Forces and served two years as part of Singapore’s National Service policy.
In the U.S., about half of all Americans support one year of mandatory service (military or nonmilitary at home or abroad) for young adults, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. Two Democratic presidential candidates are pushing for (or at least nudging toward) mandatory service: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-MD).
Delaney says that his National Service requirement of a minimum of one year could include military service, a Community Service program, National Infrastructure Apprenticeship or a Climate Corps program. His tweet announcing this plan was ratioed with over 3,000 replies and only 81 retweets. The replies included hostile comments comparing the idea to slavery and criticizing the lack of inclusion of concrete benefits like Medicare for All.
Buttigieg’s plan, “A New Call to Service,” is a lot softer, and though it doesn’t include compulsory service, the plan does include various avenues to expand service to as many communities as possible, echoing sentiments he expressed in April for one year of service to be an expected norm.
Buttigieg also cites an internal document from Service Year Alliance (SYA) that states 73% of current high school students want to serve in government, military or civic society. However, a 2015 study from the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 85% of Americans between 18 and 29 years old probably or definitely would not join the military if more troops were needed to combat ISIS.
The Gallup poll from 2017 also broke down the responses to the question of mandatory service by age. Adults between 18 and 29 years old were the least likely to favor the measure at only 39%. Those who were 65 and older were most likely to favor compulsory service at 66%.
While these opposing estimates aren’t one-to-one with Buttigieg’s numbers, since they don’t explicitly sample high school students, they do show a dissonance between the massive desire for and the lack of interest in compulsory service between two wildly different demographics.
“I’d think it’d be almost impossible to implement,” Egold replied when asked if the U.S. should require compulsory service. “And I don’t think it’s entirely practical for the U.S. They don’t need to dedicate that much manpower to defending themselves.”
I do steer clear of calling mandatory service in the U.S. “slavery,” as some hardcore libertarians, like Art Carden, have argued in the past. Hyperbole like this misconstrues the real problems with mandatory service while simultaneously downplaying the horrors of honest-to-God slavery.
Of course, there are circumstances like in Eritrea where compulsory service involves inhumane labor, affords zero freedoms and constitutes indefinite slavery, as detailed by Human Rights Watch. At the same time, there is a huge distinction between the human rights abuses of an autocratic regime and whatever plan someone like Delaney is proposing for the U.S.
The National Service requirement under a Delaney administration is one to two years of service in a plethora of options. Military service in Eritrea is a matter of life or death. Conflating the two is ridiculous.
We do have a real problem with low military engagement, and troubling aspects like the military-civilian gap, as explained by the Department of Defense, and failed recruiting goals intensifying in recent years, as reported by The New York Times, could be fixed with compulsory service widening the pool of applicants. However, it should not be our first solution.
If we’re going to solve these issues, we need to look for better solutions that don’t bring back the problems of compulsory service. This could include funding early educational opportunities to have more future applicants meet the military’s eligibility requirements and expanding volunteer opportunities above mandatory service. If we are to have mandatory service, relegate it to community service like the Peace Corps or a future Climate Corps, an idea proposed by both Mayor Buttigieg and former Rep. Delaney.
Above all, this election cycle should be an opportunity to explore new ideas, not revert back to old ones.
This is the opinion of Cristobal Spielmann, a sophomore environmental science major from Brentwood, Tennessee. Tweet comments @LALoyolan or email firstname.lastname@example.org.