The commandant of the Marines and the Army's chief of staff testified before a congressional committee last week that they would like to see women register for the draft. That follows the December order from the secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, that all front-line combat units must be open to women. What with most of the Republican presidential candidates saying they would make the armed forces stronger — and three candidates expressing support Saturday for female registration (Jeb Bush, Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio) — it probably won't be too long before women will be on the list for conscription into uniform should the draft ever be reinstated.
In the early years of this country, our third president, Thomas Jefferson, was a relentless advocate for universal military service. He wanted every male in the country of the appropriate age to devote a year of his life to the military. He was adamantly opposed to a standing volunteer army, believing it much more desirable to fulfill the need for soldiers with men from all walks of life rather than depend upon an army made up primarily by a class of men whom he called "pauper hirelings." Jefferson's reasoning still holds.
While a re-activated draft undoubtedly would cause a great deal of hardship and put the lives of women at greater risk, the draft would provide the country with important benefits. With the lives of both women and men in the military equally at risk, we will be much more likely to avoid wars; families would devote more attention to issues of war or peace than is the case with an all-volunteer military. The draft would also bring into the military better-educated recruits, for whom it would take less time to become familiar with military culture and the intricacies of contemporary technology.
And there could be a very different benefit to the country: Inner-city gangs would be broken up as the draft raided them. Although the military today usually keeps out men who have dropped out of high school or have criminal records, a non-restrictive draft would take a lot of troublemakers off the streets. The military then would instill discipline and values, and teach useful skills to a segment of American society that desperately needs such education. Bringing new pre-basic training remedial education into military life would be a great help to those headed for a life of crime. They would become good soldiers and, later, good citizens.
Pre-basic training remedial education would get draftees up to speed in the school subjects they previously scorned. Since high school diplomas are often given despite meager accomplishment, passing GED tests in reading, writing, math, science and social studies are the better marker of educational accomplishment. Draftees off the street would be transformed into soldiers who would testify, as many have in the past, that their time in the military turned their lives around.
Draftees could provide the nation with men and women not only for military service but also for community service. Draftees would be given a choice between the two — except for those who had not finished high school or had a criminal record; they would be excluded from community service.
The Corporation for National and Community Service, which already exists, for the most part consists of two components: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which focuses on disaster relief, and AmeriCorps, which focuses on community development. Recruits to FEMA Corps are involved in helping individuals and communities recover from floods, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and the like. AmeriCorps provides help for schools and parks, municipalities and non-profits, infrastructure improvements, environmental stewardship, energy conservation, and urban and rural redevelopment.
Most female draftees probably would choose community service over the military, and, in a timeout from their civilian lives, find such work very enlightening and very satisfying. They would break through the barriers of social class, and become better informed about the behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done within America.
Paul Marx, who lives in Towson, is professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven. His email is PPPMARX@comcast.net.