Nation needs a mandatory program of public service

The Baltimore Sun

George W. Bush mishandled the war in Iraq and doesn't appear to have a clue about how to extricate the United States from the wreckage. But he's still president. He's still our main man, the boss man, the chief -- not to mention Michael Steele's homeboy. Say what you will about Bush; he's still America's No. 1, duly elected -- at least the second time -- rush chairman.

We are stuck with him for the next couple of years.

So, while Bush remains leader of the free world, we need to listen to what he says and, to the extent that it remains possible, give his statements sober consideration.

This week, he's trying to sell the nation on a larger military force, saying we need to boost the number of soldiers and Marines available for a protracted war on terrorism.

Though Bush, who opposes a military draft, offered no specifics, The Washington Post reported that the administration is working on a plan to augment the nation's permanent active-duty military with as many as 70,000 more troops.

The Army thinks we can get another 20,000 men and women a year to sign up -- I wonder if that includes Barbara and Jenna, the Bush daughters? -- if we just increase pay and incentives.

This kind of talk is news, of course, because, until Donald Rumsfeld hung up his holster as defense secretary Friday, the Bush administration opposed bolstering the U.S. military.

Rummy wanted to cut troops, not recruit more. We could do more with less, he claimed. We could launch wars and the vast majority of American families -- starting with the first family -- wouldn't have to sacrifice much or worry. We could slap "Support Our Troops" stickers on our SUVs and go shopping. As the president said after 9/11: "Live your lives."

Yet, a concerned citizen might have asked how the U.S. was supposed to police the world -- or even the Middle East -- without enough police. How were we to protect ourselves and our oil supply without sending adequate numbers of well-supplied troops yonder to purge the devil?

It seems to me that, if we are engaged in a war of indefinite duration against terrorists who really, really hate us -- along with their offspring and probably their offspring's offspring -- then we will need sacrifice from a broad spectrum of the American people.

But forget about it.

Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, have bristled at suggestions that the draft would have to be restored.

"They know that such a prospect would make their decision to invade Iraq even more unpopular," wrote Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate. "Having lived through Vietnam and shirked the draft themselves, they understand that if people anywhere near their own station in life were forced to fight, any remaining support for wars of arguable necessity would dry up and blow away."

So Bush suddenly wants more troops and yet remains opposed to restoration of the draft.

So do most members of Congress. Few have the spine to even talk about it.

Last month, a New York congressman, Charles Rangel, called for a return of the draft as part of national public service for all young people, and he suggested that those who make the sacrifice for a couple of years be rewarded with funds for higher education.

Rangel made the suggestion because, in part, the U.S. military is so strained in Iraq.

"You send the troops back five and six times? ... This is so totally unfair," Rangel said. "Having our young people commit themselves to a couple years in service of this great republic, whether it's our seaports, our airports, in schools, in hospitals -- and at the end of that, to provide some educational benefits -- it's the best thing for our young people and the best thing for our country."

How did the incoming speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, react to this?

With predictable, safe dismissiveness. She said no. The response was the same from the incoming House majority leader, Steny Hoyer.

"It's not about a draft; it's about shared sacrifice in our country," Pelosi told reporters in her Capitol Hill office, offering a platitude where a response of substance was needed.

She went further to patronize Rangel: "Mr. Rangel will be very busy with his work on the Ways and Means Committee, which jurisdiction is quite different. ... He is a strong voice for social justice in our country."

But this is, in part, about social justice -- about a nation sharing in the waging of a war, the way we used to. It's not about George Bush. Barring a tsunami hitting al-Qaida's favorite vacation spot, terrorism is going to be around when Bush goes back to clearing brush in Texas.

We have a nation divided sharply in many ways, not the least of which is the gap between those who serve and those who do not -- those in the military and those who think military service is for someone else, if not the birds.

We should close that divide with two years of national public service -- civic, military or foreign -- for every American once he or she reaches the age of 18, with deferment optional until the age of 21, when service becomes mandatory. For a few years in their lives, young men and women serve a greater good and take a lesson from this experience into the rest of their lives. The military gets what it needs. The nation gets an engaged, vigilant citizenry, and something else we could really use -- a new generation of leaders who are competent, compassionate and smarter than George W.

Hear Dan Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM).

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