Todayonline Jul 09, 2012
This month, American newspapers are full of indignant stories about the country's discontented youth. Little wonder: Now that schools and colleges are out for the summer, millions of graduates are lodged aimlessly in the family home, struggling to find jobs.
Could one solution be a return of the military draft? Until recently, the idea was taboo in polite company, especially liberal circles. America has shied away from conscription since the disasters of the Vietnam war.
But, last week, former United States Army General Stanley McChrystal floated that proposal at the Aspen Ideas Festival. "I think we need a national service," he told the elite crowd. "We need it at the conclusion of high school and university. I don't think young people would fight (the draft) if it was seen to be fair."
Gen McChrystal received a standing ovation. Why? The issue is something that dominated the Aspen debates: Polarisation.
America's elite is increasingly worried about social divides. Never mind that US income inequality is growing; what really worries them is the fear that the US no longer has a common cultural and moral pole to unite around.
As libertarian author Charles Murray explained in Aspen, today's poor, white working class is increasingly socially detached from the rich. And, as political scientist Robert Putnam added, that reflects a decline in "bridging capital" - institutions that unite Americans across the income and social divide.
This is where Gen McChrystal steps in. The reason he wants a military draft is twofold: It could provide more troops and could also offer some of that badly needed bridging capital.
If "everyone over the age of 25 was able to go into a bar and talk about where they served", it would unite Americans, he explained. "I think Israel gets amazing value from that ... in terms of creating a shared experience." And a bit of service might offer some discipline for today's youth, along with a sense of (shared) sacrifice.
Could this idea ever fly? It seems most unlikely right now. The fiscal crunch is placing the military under pressure to cut its reach. And the idea would be controversial on the left.
As someone who has seen the impact of a draft, as a result of having relatives in Switzerland and having lived in the former USSR, I understand Gen McChrystal's point. I am wary of extending army power. I dislike militarised societies. But I also know from friends and relatives how effective military service can be as a social glue and rite of passage.
Being sent far away and forced to coexist with a cross-section of people is life-changing. Other institutions can achieve that effect but military service is uniquely powerful. Just look at veterans for evidence.
The irony in Aspen is that many of the elites applauding Gen McChrystal probably would not expect their own kids to suffer under a draft. As Vietnam shows, the poor end up being most affected.
But the General's ideas still raise a crucial question: If the military is not going to be social glue for the US, is there anything else? That is, perhaps, the great issue that hangs over this year's presidential race and remains dangerously unanswered.
THE FINANCIAL TIMES LIMITED
Award-winning journalist Gillian Tett is the US managing editor and an assistant editor of the Financial Times.