- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

It happened more than 30 years ago, but I still recall the cold and absolute fury with which I received my draft notice. How dare they? I barely glanced at my "Greetings" before stuffing it back into the envelope and scrawling, on my finest Yale University stationery:
"I am returning this to you. I will never serve in the United States Army, so please stop wasting my time, your time, and the government's postage. Sincerely yours. P.S. I recently joined the Marines."
But that was then. This is post-then. And Democratic Congressman-for-Life Charlie Rangel wants to restore conscription, with "nonmilitary options" for those who don't feel like it. And already the debate if such it can be called has developed along predictable lines.
Militarily, the idea's nonsense. Limited-term conscription produces semiskilled, transient, expendable labor. In military terms, cannon fodder, adequate for Industrial Age mass warfare but utterly unsuited to our 21st-century needs. Eliding this fact, conscription's backers offer a hiphop of cliches about equality and burden-sharing, as though there could be equality between combat and other necessary but less extreme tasks, or between military service and tutoring disadvantaged youth or emptying bedpans.
Very well, then. Conscription, we are told, has to do with citizenship, usually defined as service and/or sacrifice, presumably leading to deeper patriotism and maturity. At its most extreme, advocates of compulsory national service desire a massive new federal bureaucracy to force the young to appreciate their country while performing all kinds of "socially desirable" services (en passant taking millions of jobs from those who need them most).
To the American Founders, this would be worse than nonsense. But it does raise two evocative questions regarding the meanings of citizenship then and now. First, is there any longer a connection between what the Founders knew as citizenship and what it means to us today? And second, does citizenship have any rational relationship to national defense?
The answers point to the possibility no more, but no less of a recovery of genuine citizenship in post-September 11, 2001, America.
To the Founders, citizenship meant far more than rights and liberties, although these obviously mattered greatly. It also meant more than the sullen discharge of externally imposed and distasteful duties. The Founders saw active citizenship as part of a fully human life. Defending the polity, along with voting, jury duty, discourse, and occasional officeholding, were things citizens did as normally as they attended to their private affairs. They objected to standing armies less from fear of military dictatorship than from a sense that professional militaries detached the citizen from one of the prime manifestations of citizenship.
But and this is crucial their understanding of defense was quite different from our pre-September 11 conceit. To the Founders, as to most of the world today, there was no clear break between individual self-defense, defense of family and community, and war. That's why they cherished the militia, with its multiple and overlapping law enforcement and military duties. That's also why they enshrined the individual's, not the state's, right to bear arms. War might be an occasional thing, but the citizen's obligation to protect and defend was constant.
Only in the 20th century did law enforcement become the virtual monopoly of the state, and war the private preserve of the federal government. And only in the 20th century did we presume that foreign and domestic threats could be compartmentalized, and that legal barriers had to be erected to keep our agencies of law enforcement and defense separate.
No more. Reality has brought us back to the Founders' world. But has it can it bring us back to the Founders' concept of what it means to be a citizen?
Yes. And perhaps the best way to begin the recovery of citizenship from its current rights-and-entitlements-encrusted passivity, is to reaffirm the Founders' understanding of defense as a continuum, with foreign war as only one aspect and the federal role as only one part. But what does this mean in post-September 11 practice? Nobody wants a nation of snitches and snoops; nobody wants to turn the population into a paramilitary horde. What to do, once you accept that to be a citizen means to be active in defense?
Very simply, you defend. For example, it should be lawful for every law-abiding woman and man in this country to bear and maintain arms for in extremis personal and communal defense, along with voluntary free training to make this new militia "well-regulated" (an 18th-century term meaning "proficient in marksmanship"). And is it not also a duty of citizenship to be prepared for the consequences of terrorist attack, in order to make yourself less of a burden on the system and to help others? Private emergency preparations, of the kind you would make for an earthquake or hurricane, ought to be considered acts of citizen defense. Why not require basic first aid and CPR training as part of teenage drivers' education, and periodic recertification when renewing the license?
The examples could multiply, but the point is clear. Defense is now, once again, something we all must tend to. But we don't need conscripts. We need citizens. And once we get a taste of active citizenship again, we might even find we like it the way the Founders did. And who knows where that might lead?

Philip Gold is a Seattle-based writer and author of "Evasions: The American way of Military Service."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide