Why doesn’t Uncle Sam want me?
Or you, for that matter
It was the first American army and an army of everyone, men of every size and shape and makeup, different colors, different nationalities, different ways of talking, and all degrees of physical condition. Many were missing teeth or fingers, pitted by smallpox or scarred by past wars or the all-too-common hazards of life and toil in the eighteenth century.
My first ambition in life was to be a United States Marine. I was 3 or 4 years old and we lived in Columbia, where my Dad — a career naval officer — was doing a brief tour at the local recruiting depot. I guess the posters made an impression.
The aspiration never went away, even as I moved on to more achievable goals. I learned that neither the Corps nor the Army nor any other service would take me. They had this thing about people with asthma.
I accepted it, but couldn’t help thinking, “There’s got to be some way they could use me.”
But no. As long as there was a Selective Service, there was a huge supply of young guys with no black marks on their medical histories. And in the initial decades after the draft ended, the nation’s military needs were met by volunteers.
But not any more.
Today, the Army and the Marine Corps need recruits. The Army has increased the maximum age to 42. Not high enough for me, but it’s a start.
The Washington Post reported just last week that the services plan to ask new Defense Secretary Robert Gates for 30,000 more soldiers and three more Marine battalions. Unlike his predecessor, he might actually say “yes.”
But where’s he going to get them? Here’s one place:
The Post reported that in addition to seeking those regulars, “the Army will press hard for ‘full access’ to the 346,000-strong Army National Guard and the 196,000-strong Army Reserves by asking Gates to take the politically sensitive step of easing the Pentagon restrictions on the frequency and duration of involuntary call-ups for reservists, according to two senior Army officials.”
The post-Vietnam military has been highly resistant to the idea of a draft. Draftees are harder to motivate, train and rely on than volunteers. A positive attitude counts for a lot under combat conditions. But what do you call “involuntary call-ups” if not a draft? Some of those people are older than I am, and some are in worse physical condition.
Sure, they’re much less likely to complain about being called up, since they volunteered originally. I realize that they are already trained, and generally more experienced than the regulars. I understand that veterans tend to be more valuable in combat than green troops. Experience counts in everything.
But it’s wrong to keep asking the same brave people to give and give and give until they’ve got nothing left. It’s even more wrong that the rest of us haven’t been asked to do anything.
Sen. Joe Biden has this speech that I’ve heard three or four times now about how George W. Bush’s greatest failing as president is the opportunity he threw away in 2001. On Sept. 12, he could have asked us to change our lives so that we could be independent of the oil-producing thugs that finance terrorism. We would have done it gladly.
But we weren’t asked to do that. We were given a free pass while our very best bled and died in our behalf. We weren’t even asked to buy war bonds. To our everlasting shame, we opted for the opposite — we got tax cuts, even as our troops went without the equipment and the reinforcements needed to do the job.
Personally, I think we should have a draft, and not for Rep. Charles Rangel’s reasons. He seems to think that if more people were subject to a draft, we’d have no wars. I think we ought to have a draft for the simple reason that citizenship ought to cost something. We scorn illegal aliens who risk their lives crossing the desert to come here and do our menial labor, but the rest of us are citizens why — because we were born here? How is that fair?
We ought to have a draft, but not like the one we had when I was a kid. We need a universal draft, one that will find a use for every man (I wouldn’t draft women, but we can argue about that later).
Set aside for a moment (but not for long) our immediate, urgent need for a lot more boots on the ground. Even in peacetime, veterans make better citizens, and better leaders. The last generation of leaders had the experience of World War II in common, and we were better off for it. They understood that they were Americans first, and that it was possible to work with people who didn’t think the way they did. They knew citizenship was a precious thing, and they appreciated it as a result. How many people in the top echelons of politics — or the media, for that matter — have that kind of understanding to that degree? Far too few.
If we’re not going to have a draft, why not let more people who actually want to serve do so, at least in some capacity? Sure, I’m 53 and I take five different drugs to keep me breathing, but fitness is relative — my pulse, blood pressure and cholesterol are all great, and I can do 30 push-ups. Try me.
A postscript: It reads like I’m setting myself up as far braver than Bill Clinton and his ilk. I don’t mean to. If I had been healthier when I was younger, I might have been the biggest coward in Ontario. If the Army were taking 53-year-olds today, I might shut up. I have no idea. All I can do is write what I actually think, as I actually am.
And what I think is that more of us have to get off the sidelines and do something to help fight this war, which is going to go on for a long, long time, no matter what happens in Iraq.