Making new sacrifices for our country

Monday, February 3, 2020 - 3:14pm

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Illustration by Michelle Fan

No good college seduction routine would be complete without a pre-coital ideological disagreement. One October night, I cozied into the well-decorated attic of a friend who serenaded me by playing the bass before broaching the topic of conscription, a subject which, until recently, seemed largely obsolete in the post-interstate-war world. He said to me that being forced to sign up for the draft when he turned 18 seemed like a good system: While he otherwise would not have, he felt if the country called on him to go to war, he would do so gladly. I pressed him about the causes for which he would be willing to fight violently and he could list none. Blind acceptance of the country’s demands — for which we are offered no justification — reveals that we are overdue for a paradigm shift in the perception of the value we carry for our country and our world. 

For many, the choice to serve in the military is born of fiscal need: Students and young people from lower socioeconomic statuses put their own Americanist ideals of individualism on hold while they serve their the country. In the armed forces, they exchange their time — and potentially their lives — for future fiscal sponsorship to attend college or own a home. For many, education and property are pipe dreams that make the military compelling or necessary. At my former public high school where matriculation rates were low, it was common to see my peers sign up for military service. Recruiters from the Army, Air Force and Navy stationed tables around our cafeteria for weeks on end. They selected students to do pull-ups on the bars and rewarded them with glamorous pamphlets of honor and glory. 

Those peers of mine who did not have the opportunity to go to college — due primarily to financial limitations — had to listen quietly while the rest of us talked about our futures. While I and others planned to go to college and daydreamed about the careers we would pursue, others in my class prepared nothing beyond graduation. When they emotionlessly chose to join the armed forces, I wondered if it was a choice at all. If all options were equally available to each of us, how many would choose to endure the hardships of military service. Knowing that the resources spent on defense could instead provide for the education of America’s young people, the coercion underlying military servitude becomes evident. If a choice is made with coercion, is it really a choice?

Suppose, in examining the justice of conscription, we exclude those who have been coerced into service. I have to imagine for all those who are coerced in some manner to join the military, there exists a significant number who join not from need, but from desire. Some feel indebted to the public services the country has provided. In looking to reciprocate all they’ve been given by the nation, many turn to offer themselves to it, believing that if they must give up their lives so that the country can persist, it will be the least they could offer. I have respect for veterans and understand the inclination to give ourselves in servitude. Those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country and its people deserve, in fact, to be treated far better by that country than they are. 

But what if the country made no such demands on its people? What if, instead, the way we served a country was by serving its people? What if we were not asked to lay down our lives, but simply to live them to their fullest — leaving behind contributions to the nation in the form of ideas, families, art or scientific discoveries? What if the country called upon us to contribute daily to causes beyond ourselves? And what if the value of our lives was not measured in their cessation? That is to say: Can’t the country respect our potential contributions without robbing us of our chance to fulfill them? A painting, the creation of a new vaccine, the cleaning of a national park or the teaching of young people are each productive contributions one could provide, or value, in the nation. 

Recently, a Swiss friend came to visit me and laughed about his trip being made possible by his exemption from the required military service he would otherwise have to enlist in. I scoffed. Switzerland is known for its neutrality! In what army would all of its young people serve? They had a choice, he told me, between militarism and civil services: Two years in the military could be exchanged for lifelong, occasional assistance on fire services, flood damage repairs and other emergency responses to natural disasters. His choice of civil service provision should have been obvious. “I mean, can you picture me holding a gun?”

Conscription is, by accident or force of habit, a topic of conversation I often have with my friends from around the globe, one which has shown me how non-ubiquitously the armed forces are approached in distinct nations of the world. Reframing the notion of servitude to focus on the ways we create and care for one another each day is nothing more than a respect for life from our nation to us, just as we’re promised.