XARK 3.0

  • Xark began as a group blog in June 2005 but continues today as founder Dan Conover's primary blog-home. Posts by longtime Xark authors Janet Edens and John Sloop may also appear alongside Dan's here from time to time, depending on whatever.

Xark media

  • ALIENS! SEX! MORE ALIENS! AND DUBYA, TOO! Handcrafted, xarky science fiction, lovingly typeset for your home printer!



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2005

Statcounter has my back

« Bruce Sterling: Dot-Green | Main | Garrison Keillor Q&A »

Monday, March 12, 2007


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Why not mandatory 2 year service as a journalist?

Why not mandatory 2 year service as a garbage collector?

Why not mandatory 2 year service as a college professor?


I think I would have started supporting this at about the moment I turned 26.

It is an idea worth considering, though. The Israelis and Germans do something similar, and I bet other democracies do, too.

A consideration: This would cost money. You get labor, but I imagine you'd still have to pay - or at least provide for - this large group of people. The WPA was also also intended as an employment program and an economic stimulus. It might not have made economic sense outside the Depression, with its 25 percent unemployment rate.

That said, it might be worth it. I wonder if it would help create a greater sense of national community (through the shared work and experience "constructing" the nation). We could use more of that.

Then again, we also have better infrastructure and support for things like national parks than we did in the 30s. I wonder exactly what all these people would do. If the government just had to "make work" for millions, that sounds like a tremendously bad idea. You might also open debate about what sorts of "service" were inherently political. Maybe libertarians would oppose doing work related to poverty and social assistance, or would see it as a form of propaganda. I wouldn't see it that way, but I can imagine a debate.

On a side note, I would support some sort of inclusion for faith-based volunteer organizations. I did a year with the Jesuit Volunteers, and it counted toward earning the (government-based) Americorps education grant. So it's not entirely out of the question on church-state grounds. But that might be source of contention, too.


I served in the Army for 2 years back in the 80s around the same time as Daniel. I had two years of college, dropped out and guarded the German border (actually my unit provided artillery support for scouts on the border), then went back and finished college. I learned a lot about myself and other people in Army. Military service is something everyone must experience.

The Germans have mandatory military service, (I thought for 2 years) but according to Wiki, it's 8 months for those 18 to 23.

Back then, when we saw the German Army out in the field, they seem much happier than our volunteer Army.

My time was during the Reagans 80s. Many of the people I served with were kids who didn't come from family who could pay for college, so they went in for the GI Bill. In many ways (other than wealthy parents), they weren't much different than the people I met in college. Of course, there were those who went in the Army instead of jail. And a few who wanted to serve the country. Most looked at it as just a job, even for the lifers. Some were itching for real war experience, but most were just waiting to be back in civilian life.

I can't say if I were a college sophomore today that I would drop out and join knowing I would go to Iraq. In 2002, likely.

I do think that more people will be engaged in the war debate if there were a mandatory service. But I don't know if mandatory service would stop our leaders from sending our military to fight unnecessary wars.

Daniel Conover

Conscripts aren't always lousy soldiers. But they're usually lousy soldiers. And that really matters right now. Consider:

Conscript infantry duties, 19th century:
1. Stay in uniform;
2. March up and down the square in a group;
3. Make camp and keep relatively hygienic;
4. Maintain musket, ammo, and equipment;
5. Fire musket, on command, with the rest of the unit, in the general direction of an enemy military unit, without running away or soiling yourself.

Conscript infantry duties, 21st century;
1. Stay in uniform;
2. Tactical movement as a combined arms team, to include coordination with armor, helicopters, artillery and close-air support;
3. Take squad-level initiative, within the boundaries of the mission, to secure tactical targets and advantages;
4. Operation and maintenance of multiple weapons systems, including rifles, pistols, squad machine guns, grenades, Claymores, Stingers, TOWs, whatever new stuff we've got;
5. Operation and maintenance of commo and navigation equipment;
6. Operation and maintenance of vehicles;
7. Working knowledge of enemy weapons systems;
8. Advanced first aid;
9. Anti-mine/IED operations;
10. Rules of engagement for the theater;
11. Rules of engagement for the mission;
12. Language training;

And so on. I'm sure we could think up more.

Not only that, but these people are people in whom we have to be able to trust with truly sensitive missions. One dysfunctional PFC who rapes and murders in a host country has the potential to alter the course of history.

Soldiering is a profession these days. Throwing unwilling bodies at it would probably create more problems than it would solve.


"Soldiering is a profession these days. Throwing unwilling bodies at it would probably create more problems than it would solve."

What "profession" or trade would benefit from having unwilling bodies thrown at it?

What steps are involved here regardless of whether it's the military or "other" being conscripted?

First, you will define - by statute - what constitutes national service.

Then you will criminalize anyone not performing statutory national service for the requisite time during the required age bracket (minus exceptions for religion, health, welfare and morale ...).

Finally, you are conscripting to government programs or pseudo-government programs. Let's strip away the euphemisms and talk jobs. Not everyone will be a DAT like Dan. They'll be cooks, public affairs/PR, journalists, construction workers, ..., regardless of whether the government mandated program is the military, "Teach for America, the Peace Corps, organizations that build housing, work on national parks, support returning veterans, etc."

And it won't end with existing programs. We'll need more government/NGO programs to do good/"needed" public service work. Maybe the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs could find some public service work for conscripts.

IMO, the European model doesn't work for the European military. You might also want to look at the Korean model for the Korean military (North and South).


"Throwing unwilling bodies at it would probably create more problems than it would solve."

People volunteer to enlist now, but once they are in, it doesn't matter if they were conscripted or enlisted, they have to serve and can't get out.

I bet some of those enlisted would gladly quit at boot camp or at their unit, given a choice. The Army would say you can't quit because no one forced you to join. But you can't know what you were getting into until you are in.

You give up many freedoms in the service. But once you realize you have to follow orders and have no choice, you will do it to survive.

We had a mix of volunteers and draftees in World War II and Vietnam. Was there a distinction between how they performed?

I think conscripted troops would perform as well if not better than volunteers.

Soldiering has always been a profession, not more so today. Throughout history, civilizations with the best professional soldiers, like Rome, won the most battles and ruled the most territory.


John Sloop: "While there is a part of me that secretly—and slightly shamefully—enjoys the fact that recruitment is becoming do difficult ..."

Would you be secretly ashamed if you were wrong? Do you realize that during this "difficult" recruiting and retention period, we've grown the Army? And before anyone starts telling me about standards, remember that Dan and Hue served.

Army Announces Retention, Recruiting Numbers for FY 2006
DoD Announces Recruiting And Retention Numbers For January
DoD Announces Recruiting and Retention Numbers for February

And Hue doesn't know anything about the military today. In fact, less than nothing, because his description of the military is misleading.


I don't claim to know about today's military. And I only know of the unit I served in 20 years ago in Germany.

I was just wondering why does one *need* to volunteer to be better soldier today? As if a conscripted person with similar skills wouldn't be as a good soldier.

If I read you correctly Lt Col, was that a jab at Dan and me about standards? I had some college, and I excelled at my Army job. I don't claim to have been a model soldier.

Anyway, I have no personal stake in this argument, and a mandatory service is politically unfeasible.


Hue: "I don't claim to know about today's military."

Yes, you do.

Hue: "I was just wondering why does one *need* to volunteer to be better soldier today? As if a conscripted person with similar skills wouldn't be as a good soldier."

We could conscript intelligent high school graduates with the right skills into Harvard and MIT. Some will absolutely excel there. Many won't and leave with false impressions about those institutions and post-secondary education, generally.

Hue: "If I read you correctly Lt Col, was that a jab at Dan and me about standards?"

Were standards higher or lower when you joined Hue?


Why don't you tell me if standards were higher or lower, since you raised the question.


"We could conscript intelligent high school graduates with the right skills into Harvard and MIT."

So your argument is that Harvard and MIT have the same standards and skill requirement as the military?

If we were to conscript 100 high school students from a database, not distinguishing them by race, GPA or economic situation, and have them spend 2 years at Harvard and MIT. And the same 100 spend 2 years in the military. Would more excel at Harvard and MIT or in the military?


Hue: "So your argument is that Harvard and MIT have the same standards and skill requirement as the military?"

No. You asked, "I was just wondering why does one *need* to volunteer to be better soldier today? As if a conscripted person with similar skills wouldn't be as a good soldier."

So, I'll put it to you again. Would a conscripted student at Harvard or MIT with similar skills as a "volunteer" student at Harvard or MIT be as good a student?


You are comparing apples with oranges. If we're comparing the military to higher education, the question should be whether conscripts would excel at junior college not whether they would excel at elite schools like Harvard and MIT.

We're talking about conscripts for the entire military not conscripts to go to West Point or Annapolis.

Do believe that enlisting the military is equivalent to applying to Harvard and MIT?


Hue: "Do believe that enlisting the military is equivalent to applying to Harvard and MIT?"

OK, so you don't want to talk about the role volunteerism plays in success given similar skill sets?

What would you like to compare enlisting in the military too?


We're just going in circles. I just don't agree about the role of volunteerism in the success of the military.

Isn't a point of the military or boot camp is that anyone can molded into a soldier?

From my experience as a 20-year-old forward observer for the field artillery, my ability to perform that job wasn't enhanced because I volunteered instead of have been drafted.

I do understand the argument that conscripts would dilute the force because they don't want to be there. I just don't agree with that argument.

Anyway, it's supply and demand. Harvard and MIT aren't hurting for applicants. The military is struggling with recruitment no matter how you dice the numbers.


Hue: "I just don't agree about the role of volunteerism in the success of the military."

Fair enough, Hue. May we agree to disagree?

I do think this was one of our better exchanges. Looking forward to the next one.


Shortly after reading this thread I read the CNN headline: "Bush would veto any Iraq timetable". So, if your goal here is to get everyone more involved in the process I'd say it was doomed to failure. I think we'd just end up with the President having a bigger stick to wave around and no more democratic process at all.

You can look at the recruitment numbers (assuming you think they're down and for Feb they sure look to be) as demonstration of the democratic process in action: fewer of the "18-25" population is in favor than the Army National Guard wanted to be.

Regarding the draft, I think part of the reason why it worked reasonably well in WWII was that, in general, WWII was a very popular war. Even those who were drafted instead of volunteering were generally in support of what we were doing, and expressing dissatisfaction in the ranks wasn't terribly well accepted.

I think our current draft discussion is better modeled on the Vietnam era draft. You can make the argument that the US was an effective military even then, but ultimately...we lost. (I define "lost" as "failed to achieve our objective"). You find many stories of soldiers in WWII being "over here to win the war" while in Vietnam they were trying to stay safe and go home. A certain amount of that difference is propaganda. However, I believe a certain amount is truth as well. Even though both draftees and volunteers have little choice after they arrive in boot camp, there's a qualitative difference between "boy did *I* make a mistake" and "look what those assholes did to me."

Dan's point as to the changing role of an individual soldier is, I think, quite interesting. The military has hundreds if not thousands of years of experience in forcing conscripts to *physically* do what is required but do they have any experience in forcing them to do what is *mentally* required? It's much more difficult to force mental performance than physical performance and the environment necessary to force performance at all is pretty much opposite that which encourages "initiative". Perhaps we could do it, but we're sure not set up for it now and it's not clear even how to best arrange for it outside of using "brainwashing" and other socially difficult techniques. Of course, you *could* draft people to do some things and free up the volunteers for others, but I wonder how well that would work long term.

Where the theory of compulsory service in e.g. Germany is concerned, I am currently working with a young German national (I will invite him to comment on this thread). His description of his military service is very different than Dan's, not just in quantity but in quality as well. It seems to work for their goals and their society I'm not sure it is a valid argument for compulsory military service in this context. I also work with an Israeli, and his description is a bit different but his "homeland" is under active threat of invasion which ours is not.

Regarding the whole idea of mandatory service to society...well, it *can* work in the right society. The Mormons are an example there, though I'm not sure how much it benefits them as a society other than esprit de corps. However, If we tried it on a national scale we would immediately divert a great deal of our energy into arguing about what counts as service, what should be required, who should have to go, who can be except. As you point out, Libertarians would argue that some things are harm rather than service. Quakers (mostly) wouldn't want to contribute to the military... (Incidentally, I don't like "long term, familial ties with groups that have traditions of nonviolence". If nothing else it excludes the validity of conversion or "enlightenment" which is a fundamental tenant in religions both east and west.)

Ultimately I'm suspicious of someone saying "I want to force others to do as I believe" whether you call that a totalitarian regime or "compulsory national service". When someone wants to make others do something, I ask what they're willing to do to contribute. I could move from data translation systems to missile guidance or CCCI systems. Dan's expertise collecting information could surely be applied in a military environment...

In a larger context, mandating social responsibility doesn't ever seem to work.

Wars have ever been about old men sending young me off to fight. Youth has classically been known as a state with less brains than other characteristics, so if "older and wiser heads" can't *convince* them to go fight, perhaps they shouldn't actually be fighting in the first place.

"First, we would cultivate a sense of duty and obligation to one another that is often lacking."

I fail to see how forcing someone to take some action will cultivate in them the belief that the action is just and necessary. It may make them temporarily behave in a way that someone who feels their obligation would behave. It may also leave them with a "I don't have to contribute -- I've done my part" attitude which ultimately defeats your purpose. I'm sure there will be a certain number of people who come to a personal realization and believe it's the best thing ever but I'm also sure that the majority will not.

"Second, if we use the work of the WPA as an example, the labor would bring about lasting material, economic, social, and aesthetic change."

As others have pointed out, at what cost? The only way this could profit our society as a whole is if this segment of the population is so poorly economically organized that the efficiency of this governmental service allows output we would not otherwise have reached. When the WPA was formed this was true. If it's not true we're just taking the value from somewhere else to put it there.

"Third, the U.S. government, as well as U.S. voters, would indeed take a longer and harder look at any military action undertaken."

I think this is the most likely to happen -- not because anyone will care more but because more people with have a context in which to make their decisions. However, even this will not be a major shift and even so, what good would it do? American citizens have, evidently, not supported this war for a long time. How does a "longer and harder" look change things?

I read the novel "Starship Troopers" at a young, impressionable age and thought "wow, how cool". However, even at 14 I noticed that their Utopia of national service was strictly voluntary.

If you really want to change the way society acts, you need to do it differently. Mandates are easy, and shallow and usually useless. The values of society persist even when the law opposes.

If you want to create this change, you should convince employers that hiring those who have given "service" is a good thing. Convince hiring managers that Peace-corps or Military Veterans or Habitat for Humanity experience is a very good thing and should be strongly preferred over others. The U.S. civil service already does this, right? The "civil service exam" results are biased towards military service. If you can do this consistently then young people will start to do it voluntarily in order to gain the results. If you keep it up for a generation or two then they'll do it because "it's the right thing to do" and no one will remember it was all selfish to start with.


A modest proposal:

In order to bring about the change John wants in the world, I suggest that someone, right now, puts together an organization that rates companies on their view of public service. This organization should only evaluate and score existing business or NGO entities on their records of supporting individual service to society and communicate that to the nation at large so that every individual can make an informed decision on with whom they do business. Think of this as an permanent "Buy American"/Shop at Sears/"Boycott " campaign. We don't need a law -- we can do it right now.

Since this is about individual public service the company's own charitable contributions are irrelevant. I think we should look for two things:

1) Attitude towards prior service -- e.g. do they give hiring preference to Military or Peace Corps or Teach for America or (list TBD) for either hiring or promotion?
2) Attitude towards current service -- e.g. do they give leave of absence for a tour of service.

Under these ratings I would expect companies with policies like Sears to be highly rated. Small companies who cannot afford this could also be highly rated if their entire staff were veterans of some approved service organization. I strongly suggest that the definition of service be quite broad -- I'm looking here for companies that tangibly support people who "put their time where their mouth is" and not just looking for a specific cause such as military or environment, but could include both. Part of putting this together, of course, would be wrangling over the definition of "service" and if service mandated by another organization (e.g. Mormon's mission) should count.

I am not willing to take the lead on this and I don't know if such an organization already exists (though they didn't Google up on my causal keywords), but if someone reading this would like to put together such an organization I will volunteer some of my time and expertise towards setting up and possibly hosting the Web/IT necessities (at least until they grow beyond my current resources).


This has been a most fruitful discussion (for me as a "listener," anyway). I wrote the post rather quickly, as I was mulling over community "spirit," obligation, war, etc., so, as is obvious, it is a half baked set of ideas (hell, maybe I don't even have the basics in the recipe there). I almost asked Dan to delete it as, in general, I like the idea of either putting a bit more thought into posts or giving them a label, such as "brainstorming national service." At any rate, I just wanted to remark that the comments have certainly done the task of helping me see multiple problems with my general idea, and I would like to give special kudos to Dewey's response on rating companies in terms of National Service support. Very interesting.

Rob Johnston

I have started a campaign to encourage the presidential candidates to adopt a program of mandatory national service. Though I do not spell out a policy in detail (that's for the candidates), I seek people who believe that bringing all Americans together to serve the common good will produce substantial benefits for the country. I would suggest that military service would count for one's national service requirement, and that by making all serve we would increase the participation in the military. Check us out at http://everyoneserves.org/


Even though both draftees and volunteers have little choice after they arrive in boot camp, there's a qualitative difference between "boy did *I* make a mistake" and "look what those assholes did to me."

I do agree there's a qualitative difference. I spent a lot of time going round and round with Tim even though I don't feel that strongly about my position. I do get drawn into debates from comments.

Let me explain my waffling.

Regarding the draft, I think part of the reason why it worked reasonably well in WWII was that, in general, WWII was a very popular war.

This is the essential point. I've tried to avoid talking about Iraq in this debate, but whether or not the public support a war is essential to military recruitment. I think it's not whether or not we should have a volunteer or mandatory service -- it's whether the public supports a war. If there is public support, then the recruits would follow, IMO.

Whether they are volunteers or draftees is academic.

Why did Sloop start this post? Do we have a military recruitment problem because we don't have mandatory service? Or does the recruiting problem exist because of the public support of the current wars?


Dewey Sasser: "I think our current draft discussion is better modeled on the Vietnam era draft."

I disagree. But if you're looking to compare post-WWII, you should start with the Korean War draft and the Truman Doctrine. Walk through Truman/McArthur and Eisenhower to the Vietnam era with Kennedy/Johnson and Nixon. This would also provide insight concerning "popularity" vs. history.

I would like to add my kudos to Dewey's National Service rating system. It also reminded me of socially responsible investment movement.

Rob Johnston

Common Sacrifice

One of the reasons to require national service is to bring us together around issues of national importance. In the current war the only people who are truly making a sacrifice are those serving in the military and their families. Some of those people may have long-enough histories with military service to understand what sacrifice is called for during difficult times. I bet many are surprised that their Reserve or National Guard commitment requires as much as it does now.

If President Bush had called for a national commitment to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and had made clear the need for all Americans to sacrifice (through service, taxes, energy saving, etc.) he could have built a stronger nation following 9/11. He missed that opportunity. That does not mean the nation should continue to miss the benefits that come from a common period of national service.

Now we can create a new part of growing up American. If everyone who plans to go to college does two years of service before enrolling, that college experience will be vastly improved. Rather than welcoming thousands of kids away from home for the first time, colleges would see young people with a little bit of experience, perhaps with greater clarity about their strengths and future intentions. The same would be true for employers hiring young people after their service.

Service roles can be carried out in government jobs (see WPA or Homeland Security, National Parks, etc.) or in nonprofits (Teach for America, City Year, faith-based social services, etc.) The program would cost money, but it would strengthen military recruitment, improve higher education, improve worker productivity, and probably increase voting participation. Citizenship can be learned.


That's an interesting argument, and in general I agree with notion that national service can be a great benefit to young people. It certainly improved my life, and I hope all four of our kids at least consider the option of enlisting in something (sadly, though, I won't let them get anywhere near the Army at the moment).

But part of what makes the experience valuable is that the service is valued. It's not the same experience if it's compulsory. Others may not value the uniform so much if the people wearing it do so against their will.

I completely agree with the point about Americans taking military action more soberly if they have children who could be called up to fight. There's a photo floating around the Net of a white board on a Marine base in Iraq where someone has written something like "America is not in Iraq. The Marines are in Iraq. America is at the mall." Touche. This, by the way, was one of the points that Michael Moore made in Fahrenheit 911 when he accosted senators and congressmen and asked them whether they had children/grandchildren in the military. Few had.

It's just generally a bad deal for society if one segment makes decisions about war and others go fight that war. Old men sending young men to fight is one thing, but if the upper middle class isn't sending people to the military anymore, that's a problem.

So Rob's idea is something that I've considered in the past and chosen not to support. There are public/private sector considerations. There are make-work considerations. There are potential class and race considerations. For all its potential benefits, I'm more concerned about the potential for unintended consequences of something so expensive, so life-altering, so emotional.

In other words, military service fills a need that cannot be filled by the private sector. Citizenship is a byproduct of that service, not its purpose. To create a national service program with a social engineering agenda is, I think, ultimately a poor choice.

We could encourage all sorts of voluntary national service options, but the problem is cost. Unless society values them, they're not going to willingly pay the taxes that would be required to fund them.


And while it might be nice to reward employers who value service, I don't know how much I like that idea. In the first place, the country has a really immature relationship to the military at the moment -- great gobs of kitschy, spoogey love get thrown at our soldiers via the media, and yet there's a sense that this is class-based guilt making up for people's legitimate choices not to serve in the military.

How many of the parents with "Support Our Troops" ribbons on their expensive vehicles would be excited about their college-bound daughter dating a 19-year old, rough-around-the-edges C-DAT (computerized, dumb-ass-tanker)?

Soldiers get their benefits from the service, and that should be enough. College money. Training. Life experience. Job skills. When I got out, they gave me a sheet of paper that said I had equivalent job experience as a heavy-equipment operator. I kept that paper close for years, in case the whole journalism thing didn't work out. Driving a bulldozer? I could do that, and the people who look for young workers to train generally know that.

On the flipside: We should get serious about protecting veteran's benefits and taking care of Guardsmen whose units get nationalized. Families take a financial toll when this happens. It's a terrible thing.


Please. National service? How would Haliburton make any money?!


Maybe a national service is coming. Does Dubai have a national service?

The comments to this entry are closed.