I know how to make America great again.
I’m not a big fan of Donald Trump, as I might’ve said once or twice before, at dinner parties, in these pages, or on National Public Radio. But seeing the president behave more like a commander in chief these past two weeks than his predecessor had in eight years in office—destroying one-fifth of Bashar al-Assad’s air force while enjoying a scrumptious chocolate cake, dropping 21,000 lbs. of explosive justice on ISIS scum in Afghanistan—gave me an idea about how to turn Trump’s favorite locution from a maddening mantra into an action plan. Here goes: Reinstate the draft.
Before you contemplate this idea any further, go ahead and read this editorial from the young Soviets who run Wellesley’s student newspaper. “If people are given the resources to learn,” opined the sisters of Stalin, and “refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted.”
It’s easy to mock the muddle-minded millennials who’ve turned our colleges into self-imposed gulags of the mind. But railing against the depravities of regressive liberalism does little to mitigate the damage it can do or redeem a generation lost to the poisonous logic of political correctness. The greatest peril to American democracy isn’t that our elected leader is a boastful bumbler who may or may not eventually learn how to govern without too much harm—it’s that too many institutions on which civil society depends have abandoned the cause of liberty and the call to community for a heady brew of bad ideas not many Americans share.
And the Army is the perfect antidote.
Some advantages of universal, mandatory conscription are immediate, obvious, and delightful. In Afghanistan, one imagines, those Wellesley women who believe the dissenting opinions of others merit hostility would learn what those words they toss around so cavalierly—hostility, resources, beliefs—truly mean, or what an actual war against women truly looks like, or what happens to a society when it is seized by narrow-minded fanatics who forbid all difference. And those Middlebury militias who attacked a professor and a visiting lecturer last month might learn that the urge to smash and silence opponents is better served when directed not at aging conservative scholars in think tanks but at Syrian soldiers in real tanks. The apolitical young will be similarly well served by putting away their apps and loading some ammunition—the upcoming challenges are far too overwhelming for a generation reared on Snapchat.
But there’s more to suggest the wisdom of the draft than just a heaping serving of Schadenfreude. With its ranks swelling from about 1.3 million to more than 30 million—the number of Americans aged 18-24, according to the 2010 Census—the U.S. Army could be called upon to meet all manner of challenges, at home and abroad. Some of them are grim: From Damascus to Donbass, the vacuum created by Barack Obama’s adamant refusal to flex America’s muscles has inspired devils of all stripes to step up and step in. To no one’s surprise, what ensued was a major global crisis that unleashed a torrent of refugees and further destabilized an already-rickety region. If America signaled that it was serious about once again defending its national interests not only by dropping bombs or launching missiles but by building up scores of new divisions ready for deployment, those betting on American apathy or reluctance may think twice. Just as important, as the vast majority of American soldiers are currently stationed stateside, the tens of millions of new recruits could be put to use doing anything from building new airports to paving new roads. And if that sounds far-fetched, recall that the mobility of U.S. troops and vehicles was a major factor in President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to invest in the interstate highway system. Our current defense needs call for other kinds of infrastructure, like a faster and more secure internet. And yet, according to the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranked 25th in the world in terms of overall infrastructure, behind such global powerhouses as Oman. Millions of men and women with nothing but time on their hands and all the training the world’s greatest military can give could solve all that.
A nationwide conscription would, of course, dramatically change the nature of American society. And that’s precisely the point. The armed forces remain the one institution an overwhelming majority of Americans—left, right, and center—still trusts, but when its veterans took to the ballot, they voted for Trump by a margin of 2-1. They did so not because they belong to some particular, underprivileged demographic—on the contrary, studies show that those who volunteer to serve are significantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods, as well as enjoy a high level of education. They turned to Trump for many of the same reasons they turned to the Army: because they see themselves as Americans first and foremost; because they see the world through the prism of nationalism, not globalism; and because they know that might is indispensable to the preservation of the virtues and the blessings we hold dear. Their collegiate contemporaries, on the other hand, often view themselves as part of a cosmopolitan elite and champion the same universal values progressives fashion into banners everywhere from Melbourne to Madrid; they see nationalism as little more than a preamble to racism, and force as a prelude to brutality. This polarization has been the subject of much hand-wringing and, with good reason, will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Unless we somehow throw these two factions together into an institution everyone respects and force them to consider alternative points of view.
Which is what they still do in Israel, where men and women from widely different backgrounds spend their formative years committing their time not only to defending the country’s borders but also to teaching underserved communities, preparing for natural disasters, caring for the poor and the needy, welcoming immigrants, and forging a society that can never really break apart, no matter how serious the fissures it faces and how deep the disagreements that trouble its political life. Once you’ve sweated side by side with someone, once you’ve helped them through an endless run in the heat or watched with gratitude as they pushed you out of bed for yet another impossibly early roll call, you can never see them as anything but your brother or your sister, no matter how divergent your views of the world may be.
We could use some of this brotherly love in America. We could use some great equalizer that brings us all, red and blue, together in khaki. We could use a mighty machinery of change that turns its gears toward our national priorities, toward our sagging infrastructure, toward our neglected interests. We could use the chance to feel a part of something greater than ourselves again. We could use the draft.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.