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November/December 2023 -   -  



While watching CNN — in 2013 — I heard Col. Jack Jacobs, a retired U.S. Army officer and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, speak about something that struck a chord with me. He suggested a new concept called Universal National Service.

Col. Jacobs’ main argument was based on the fact that, during the Vietnam War, the Selective Service System allowed too many draft exemptions. He argued that the exemptions created unfair advantages for certain privileged people, primarily those who could afford to go to college. And he emphasized that the system was particularly unjust for minorities and those who joined the armed forces to escape poverty.

During the Vietnam War, the flaws in the Selective Service System became apparent as many men exploited the system to their advantage. This selectiveness mainly manifested itself in three ways:

  • College students being exempt from the draft.
  • Individuals with political influence receiving preferential treatment.
  • Disproportionate numbers of poor and minority individuals being drafted.

What’s more, during the Vietnam War, young men chose to leave the country to avoid fulfilling their draft obligations. Others manipulated the system by obtaining multiple deferments to avoid being drafted.

Col. Jacobs’ proposal for Universal National Service aimed to address these issues and create a more equitable system for all Americans, ensuring that every individual was given a fair chance to serve the nation. This concept merits serious consideration as we reflect on our nation’s history and strive to build a just and inclusive society.

The question of whether a draft is necessary will indeed remain relevant, and the concept of Universal National Service that VVA President Jack McManus discussed in his President’s Message in the July/August issue is an interesting approach to address this issue. By requiring everyone between the ages of 18 and 25 to serve a minimum of two years of National Service, such a system would foster a sense of civic duty and shared responsibility among all citizens.

Under the UNS, individuals would have the freedom to choose the path that best aligns with their skills, interests, and aspirations. Some would opt to serve in the armed forces to fulfill their two-year commitment while contributing directly to the nation’s defense. Others would choose to serve in non-military capacities, such as participating in community service, public infrastructure projects, or with disaster relief efforts.

The AVF: The Easier Approach

Rather than addressing the inequities in a system that had been in place since 1917 during World War I, Congress opted for an easier approach and introduced the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973. This move aimed to avoid the controversies and social unrest associated with the draft. While the AVF eliminated some of the unfairness inherent in the draft system, it also brought its own set of challenges, including recruiting and retention difficulties.

The United States must recognize that an increasingly smaller segment of our population bears the burden of defending our nation. Today, fewer than 1 percent of eligible Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 choose to join the military.

That situation has resulted in the emergence of “Us and Them” attitudes among both civilian and military populations. As it stands today, the majority of those who volunteer to serve in the military come from lower-income families. To bridge this gap, we must distribute the burden of service more evenly across the population.

There have been significant challenges faced by our military personnel, especially during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is concerning to see that too many troops were subjected to multiple deployments, sometimes up to six, which had a detrimental impact on their well-being. As a result, a staggering 25 percent of America’s active-duty military personnel are dealing with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. This condition, along with the strain of repeated combat exposure, has contributed to alarmingly high suicide rates.

This combination of challenges cannot be resolved with our current military manpower system. It can only be met by instituting conscription with a system of mandatory and universal national service in which all young men and women must serve their country, while being able to choose between military and non-military service.

The late Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who introduced a Universal National Service Act in the House in 2011, captured the essence of the issue eloquently when he said: “As a nation, we cannot stand idly by as such a small segment of our population makes continuous sacrifices on our collective behalf.”

Shared Duty

By implementing a system of Universal National Service, we can address this pressing concern and foster a sense of shared duty among all young adults, regardless of their backgrounds or circumstances.

A UNS system would require males and females to commit to serving the nation for two years. The system would encompass several volunteer areas, such as public health, public works, and support for teachers and social workers in disadvantaged regions. By doing so, it would strengthen our military manpower, reduce resistance to mandatory service, and minimize the need for military force. At the end of the two-year period, conscripts could opt for continued military service, but those who decided not to stay would be free to pursue their life goals.

Some will oppose this plan, claiming it is impractical and expensive. However, it would serve as a pathway to military service in times of conflict, which is one of its objectives. The idea is to distribute the responsibility for serving and protecting the country among a larger portion of the population.

I used to advocate for a return to the Selective Service System draft, but Col. Jacobs’ plan makes more sense. He rightly points out that our society lacks commonality, with most Americans unaware of the sacrifices involved in protecting the homeland and serving others. By stepping outside their comfort zones and contributing to society through Universal National Service, individuals can take ownership of the United States of America and experience a sense of accomplishment and unity




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