Welcome to Political Confessional, a column about the views that Americans are scared to share with their friends and neighbors. In an increasingly polarized political climate, adherence to party or ideological orthodoxy on the issues of the day seems de rigueur. Social media serves only to amplify that perception at times. But Americans’ political views are often idiosyncratic and sometimes offensive, and they rarely adhere neatly to any particular party line. In this column, we want to dig into Americans’ messy opinions on politics, morality and social mores. We hope that this exercise gives readers a glimpse into the minds of those with whom they might disagree — or agree! If you have a political belief that you’re willing to share with us, fill out this form — we might get in touch.
This week we talked to Chris, a 40-year-old white man from Tennessee who works as a higher education administrator. Chris wrote, “I believe the United States should implement mandatory military service for all young men and women. Many people believe the end of conscription was a great accomplishment in this country. The people around me (mostly left leaning) think this is an inherently hawkish position that makes war more likely.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Clare Malone: So, how did you come to this view?
Chris: I have not served in the military. When I graduated from college in 2000, the world was at peace, the economy was booming, and we had won the Cold War. I did have a sense of civic responsibility and wanted to give back somehow so I was in Teach For America. It’s shocking to say “reinstate the draft!” But what I’m thinking more broadly about is some kind of obligatory national service. I think for a lot of people it would be the military.
I just finished my doctorate of education, and I was in a social context class and our professor — who is the stereotypical liberal sociology professor — was talking about all the important things that schools do to build the social capital of our society, to teach citizenship and blah, blah, blah. And I just realized that that’s a load of crap — that they just don’t do that anymore. I thought about, “Where is it that I do see that common vision of who we are as Americans and what our community is supposed to be like?” Because that’s a huge problem we’re facing right now. And I thought about the old men that used to go to the prayer breakfast at my first church and they had all been in World War II. And a lot of them said, “I wouldn’t have known how to peel a potato if I hadn’t been in the Army; I wouldn’t have known how to iron; I wouldn’t have ever met so-and-so from the North because I’m from the South.”
So I said something in that class and I got on that professor’s bad side. I said something like, “What if we had the draft again?” and she shot daggers at me. It came from thinking about the role of education in particular, just given my career trajectory, in shaping our civic and social life and the way that we are really not doing that very well.
CM: Where do you think education is falling down on building that social capital stuff?
Chris: I think the performance of public schools, particularly in urban and rural settings, is an example. The public schools in the United States are underperforming, in part because of white flight. I think the proliferation of private education and, in particular, Christian private education, really seems to be catering to a white middle class. Then charter schools are pulling some of the parents and kids who are really interested in good public schools out of public schools.
CM: You think the problem is children aren’t being integrated with people who aren’t like them?
Chris: I think that’s one thing. I think failing public schools are also about how we’re so desperately trying to keep our heads above water that any sense of civic responsibility takes a back burner. And maybe I’ve seen too many World War II movies where the platoon pulls together, but I do think that’s a huge part of it, getting people together.
CM: Let’s talk nitty gritty. Are you imagining something like bringing back the draft or are you looking at something more like Israel’s compulsory service?
Chris: Israel does this really well, based on what I’ve seen when I’ve traveled. Not everybody is going to be willing to go into the military. When you get to the policy level, you really have to create exceptions and opportunities.
In World War II, you got rejected if you had any physical disability at all — well, you want those people to be a part of the civic fabric, so how do you create opportunities where those people can be engaged? The military is the quick and dirty way, and the path that a lot of people would take. Programs like Teach for America, City Year — I think there are a lot of different ways it could look on the ground. I know there would be conscientious objectors who wouldn’t want to do military service, so you would need to create opportunities for those folks to step into a classroom and experience that.
CM: I want to drill down a little into the values that you think the military instills specifically.
Chris: As a higher education person, I think a lot about how we’re teaching values and what are the values we want to teach and are they helping us to create a cohesive community. I think we talk the language of citizenship a lot, but we don’t have any sense of the flip side of that — the obligation and responsibility that comes with rights and freedoms. I think Robert Putnam put his finger on something in “Bowling Alone”; the Rotary Club and the bowling league and the garden club, all those things are declining and having a sense of connectedness in your community is becoming more difficult. And teaching that connection to community is important. That active and engaged sense of community is important.
I also work with college kids, and I was a college kid. And I know college kids are dumb sometimes; they make bad and immature choices sometimes. An example would be in “Hillbilly Elegy”; the author [J.D. Vance] talked about how valuable the Marines were in helping him mature and focus and get on a path with some particular life skills that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. My family could have been in “Hillbilly Elegy” — my mother’s brothers all were on the path to juvenile delinquency in their teen years and joined the military and it gave them a sense of discipline and purpose and I don’t know how they would have developed it otherwise because they grew up in a chaotic home with an alcoholic and absent father.
CM: Are you thinking at all about how this policy would affect the nation’s likelihood of going to war? Or does that not factor in?
Chris: I think that’s huge. Right after the Iraq War started, I think [New York Democratic Rep.] Charlie Rangel was the one who was beating this drum [to reinstate the draft]. He’s part of the generation that was shaped by the experiences of World War II. There’s a lot of class things that comes into this too. My dad was a middle-class white kid, was in the National Guard and did his active duty at Ft. Sill in the artillery. He trained forward observers to go to Vietnam, and he said invariably that they were black and poor and were going into the most dangerous job in the artillery in Vietnam. And I think he came away with a pretty bad taste in his mouth.
I do think that this kind of broad net that brings a lot of America’s young people into military and national service would lead our policy deciders to be more judicious in their use of the military. [Virginia Democratic Sen.] Tim Kaine and [former Virginia Democratic Sen.] Jim Webb have talked about their experience of having to make policy decisions on the use of the military and having children who are serving. And down the road, people will have served who are moving into Congress and policy roles at the Department of Defense and things like that. I think it would make for more judicious use of the military and engage more people in that debate.
CM: Lots of people have family or know people who served in Vietnam who were quite scarred by it. We now know PTSD is a huge problem among veterans. Do you think there could be unintentional but very real bad effects if we put more people into combat situations?
Chris: I do think there would be some very real consequences, but people experience PTSD living in America’s inner cities. And they experience depression and anxiety dealing with the fact that their family farm of five generations is failing around them. There are always consequences for the choices that we make and this is not a thing you slip past people — this is a big conversation.
CM: Do you worry that in your hypothetical military/national service plan, the same sort of class and race stratification would happen that we currently see in the military?
Chris: Maybe. I would hope that we as a society — well, I hoped until 2016 and maybe I’m wrong — that we are more aware of those dynamics as a society and could build into the policy mechanisms to make sure there’s accountability.
CM: Have you talked about this outside of that class where you got that bad reaction?
Chris: Not really. It’s interesting, I remember on the morning of Sept. 11, I was teaching and the school was right by the airport, and when I went by the airport, there were Humvees lined up along the road and people with machine guns were standing on the roof of the airport. I remember thinking, “I’m going to get drafted.” I was 23. It was terrifying. But it was something I would have been willing to do. Because that’s what I think it means to be an American.