Talks of mandated national service, by Clarence Page

6/20/2024, 7 a.m.
Don’t get nervous, young folks, but talk about a national service mandate has been bubbling up again in Washington.

Don’t get nervous, young folks, but talk about a national service mandate has been bubbling up again in Washington.

Such talk has been particularly vigorous among key advisers to Donald Trump as he begins what he hopes will be his transition back to the White House.

Of course, talk of mandated national service is one step away from that dreaded term—the draft.

But before any of my younger readers dash away to pack up for Canada, relax, at least for now. It would take an act of Congress to bring back the draft and we’re a long way from that happening. Yet, as crazy as our national politics sometimes is these days, it pays to be prepared for anything.

As The Washington Post reported this week, Christopher Miller, who led the Pentagon during the last tumultuous days of Donald Trump’s presidency, thinks a national service requirement should be “strongly considered.” He detailed his vision for military and civilian readiness as part of Project 2025, the conservative Heritage Foundation’s latest book of federal policy recommendations that they have been publishing for presumptive Republican presidential nominees since Ronald Reagan.

Miller, a retired Green Beret, is among the most outspoken about mandating national service and taking other steps to improve military readiness. He sees a “crisis” facing our all-volunteer military. Although Trump has not formally endorsed this latest Heritage strategy document, he eagerly embraced the organization’s proposals in his first term.

At a time when just 1% of the nation’s population serves in the armed services, according to the Post, the big readiness challenge continues to be recruitment. The Pentagon fell short of its recruiting goal by about 41,000 last year, the Post reports. Only the Marines and the Space Force met their objectives.

In one startling explanation for the shortfall, the Army cited internal data indicating some 71% of Americans do not qualify for military service for reasons that include obesity, drug use and aptitude.

Yet, as one of the last draftees during the Vietnam War, I know that Washington and the Pentagon don’t want to go back to the days of draft cards except as a very last resort. Besides the problems of physical readiness, there are the morale issues tied to soldiers who don’t want to be there. Any commander, as I learned firsthand, would rather lead a platoon of willing recruits than resentful and begrudging draftees.

Among Miller’s recommendations, he would like to see the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, taken in every high school. It’s a multiple-aptitude exam that helps predict future academic and occupational success in the military. More than a million military applicants take it every year.

I can also speak from personal experience about the personal value of the military experience. Besides the physical fitness—that has faded for me over time—I remain impressed and inspired by the level of personal sacrifice my fellow troops were willing to make without giving it a second thought.

The draft ended for Americans in 1973, two years before the war ended, after Congress cut off its funding. No one seems to have been in a hurry to bring it back ever since.

Still, there are some gung-ho MAGA Republicans who suggest a draft could toughen up a seemingly pampered generation of video game-playing softies.

Maybe so, but let’s not press our luck. We’re better off with an all-volunteer military.

The irony of having a possible return of Trump took on an ironic twist with the recent 80th anniversary of the D-Day landing. It brought back memories of how Trump’s role as commander in chief was compromised at times by his multiple deferrals from military service during the Vietnam era thanks to questionable medical claims.

The controversy led Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois—who lost both legs in combat—to rechristen Trump “Cadet Bone Spurs.”

Somehow I don’t think, despite the entreaties of those on the right who fret about the state of our military, that Trump would endorse something as politically unpopular as a return of the draft. But he’s not the most predictable of candidates.

The writer is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.