Many of the world's mature democracies require every high-school graduate to serve a year or two of either military or nonprofit service, as Congressman Charlie Rangel has proposed every year for some time now. At first blush, this may seem like an oppression by government, but history shows it's actually one of the best ways to prevent a military from becoming its own insular and dangerous subculture, to prevent the lower ranks of the military from being overwhelmed by people trying to escape poverty, and to keep military actions of the government accountable to the people.
The Founders of America extensively considered this same issue. Many were strongly against there ever being a standing army in America during times of peace, although they favored a navy to protect our shoreline borders, and today would no doubt favor an air force. The theory was that an army had too much potential for mischief, to oppress people, or even stage a military coup and take over an elected government (as recently happened in Pakistan and has happened in several other nations over the past century).
Thomas Jefferson first suggested that we not have a standing army, and wrote a series of letters in 1787, as the Constitution was being debated, urging James Madison and others to write it into the Constitution.
The idea was, instead of a standing army, for every able-bodied man in the nation to be a member of a local militia, under local control, with a gun in his house. If the nation was invaded, word would come down to the local level and every man in the country would be the army.
Switzerland has such an army, and many have suggested it's one reason why Hitler never tried to invade this neighbor.
To facilitate this, it was suggested that three things were necessary. A ban on a standing army; a provision making every able-bodied male a trained member of a local militia that could come under nation control if the nation was attacked; and a provision making sure every male had a weapon handy if that day ever came.
Step one would be to write a ban on a standing army into the Constitution. When Jefferson received the first draft of the new Constitution in 1787, he wrote that without an addendum, a Bill of Rights, he would recommend that Virginia oppose it.
In a Feb. 12, 1788 letter, he noted to his friend Mr. Dumas, "With respect to the new Government, nine or ten States will probably have accepted by the end of this month. The others may oppose it. Virginia, I think, will be of this number. Besides other objections of less moment, she will insist on annexing a bill of rights to the new Constitution, i. e. a bill wherein the Government shall declare that, 1. Religion shall be free; 2. Printing presses free; 3. Trials by jury preserved in all cases; 4. No monopolies in commerce; 5. No standing army. Upon receiving this bill of rights, she will probably depart from her other objections..."
The topic was hotly debated, and Alexander Hamilton wrote an extensive article about it, first published in a newspaper titled The Daily Advertiser on January 10, 1788. This article is now known as Volume 29 of The Federalist Papers. (The entire text is at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/const/fed/fed_29.html .)
"If standing armies are dangerous to liberty," Hamilton wrote, "an efficacious power over the militia, in the body to whose care the protection of the State is committed, ought, as far as possible, to take away the inducement and the pretext to such unfriendly institutions." A citizen's militia, Hamilton noted, "appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it..."
But while many Founders saw a standing army as a threat to democracy, others pointed to threats ranging from hostile Indians to French Canadians and Spanish Floridians as reasons to keep it.
The debates among the Framers of the Constitution led to a clumsy compromise, with the ban on a standing army and universal requirement for membership in a militia chopped away, to be revisited at some (presumably near) future time. The tattered and compromised remnant of that discussion is today known as our Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads, in its entirety: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
(As you can see, the Second Amendment thus had virtually nothing to do with the "we can rise up against an oppressive government" argument put forth by today's advocates of ownership of assault weapons, or the "right to self defense in your own home" argument put forth by the NRA.)
As president, Jefferson again tried to revive his argument. He slashed the size of the army to just over 3000 soldiers, closing forts and cutting costs. But he couldn't kill off the army altogether, because the citizen's militia had never been formalized at a federal level.
After he left office, Jefferson came to the conclusion that if he couldn't get rid of the army, then every man should be a member of it, if only for a brief time. This would insure diversity of opinions in the army, and minimize the chances of a military coup or a military culture that could become so powerful it would influence the government or seduce the president into playing commander-in-chief too often in foreign adventures.
Jefferson was also morally offended by the idea of an army that people would join only because they were so poor there was no other way to get an education and a job (for such people, he wanted universal free public education, including free college tuition - which he brought into being when he founded the University of Virginia).
He wrote his thoughts on the topic in a June 18, 1813 letter to his old friend and future president James Monroe.
"It is more a subject of joy that we have so few of the desperate characters which compose modern regular armies," he wrote, pleased that his army had taken on a different nature during his tenure as President, just completed five years earlier. "But it proves more forcibly the necessity of obliging every citizen to be a soldier; this was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free State. Where there is no oppression there will be no pauper hirelings."
He noted that so-called "voluntary" armies depend upon a "pauper class" for their existence. By the end of his presidency (1808), Jefferson had largely done away with America's standing army, and he was thus inspired to write to his friend Dr. Thomas Cooper, on September 10, 1814, that "our men are so happy at home that they will not hire themselves to be shot at for a shilling a day. Hence we can have no standing armies for defence, because we have no paupers to furnish the materials."
In history, Jefferson found justification for his opinion. "The Greeks and Romans had no standing armies," he wrote in that letter to Monroe, "yet they defended themselves. The Greeks by their laws, and the Romans by the spirit of their people, took care to put into the hands of their rulers no such engine of oppression as a standing army. Their system was to make every man a soldier, and oblige him to repair to the standard of his country whenever that was reared. This made them invincible; and the same remedy will make us so."
He noted that such a system of universal service "was proposed to Congress in 1805, and subsequently; and, on the last trial was lost, I believe, by a single vote only. Had it prevailed, what has now happened [in the War of 1812] would not have happened. Instead of burning our Capitol, we should have possessed theirs in Montreal and Quebec. We must now adopt it, and all will be safe."
He noted that three-quarters of a million men qualified for a draft in 1814, and added, "With this force properly classed, organized, trained, armed and subject to tours of a year of military duty, we have no more to fear for the defence of our country than those who have the resources of despotism and pauperism."
As history shows, Jefferson was more often right than wrong. We should institute a universal draft in the United States, with a strong public service option - from planting trees to assisting in schools to helping in hospitals - easily and readily available for those young people who don't want to go into the military.
The result will be a generation of citizens who feel more bonded with and committed to their nation, who have experienced the critical developmental stage of a "rite of passage" into adulthood, and who have experienced more of America and the world than just their own neighborhood.
Universal service would also help calm President Dwight D. Eisenhower's fears. The old general left us the following warning as he left office in 1960: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
"We must never," he added, "let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted."
As Jefferson wrote to Monroe: "We must train and classify the whole of our male citizens, and make military instruction a regular part of collegiate education. We can never be safe till this is done."
Herbert Hoover correctly noted, "Old men declare war. But it's the youth who must fight and die." When the children of our President, Vice President, and members of Congress are all obliged to serve, the odds are infinitely higher that our leaders won't speak so glibly about the acceptability of "a few casualties" in optional wars of choice like Iraq.
By including women, and adding a very broad government-funded option of national public service, we can bring about a modern version of Jefferson's vision and create both a more egalitarian society and a less belligerent and poverty-driven military. And prevent future "adventures" like Iraq.