A Way to Potentially Harm Many People for Little Benefit

Noah Smith has an article proposing some kind quasi-mandatory national service. The end-goal is not, say, winning WWII, but rather the social cohesion side-effect gained from making young people from different backgrounds work together. For many reasons, I think this is a bad idea, but perhaps the most important is that for it to “work”—to really forge some kind of deep band-of-brothers connection, you’d have to impose terrible costs on the participants.

The reason military service is described as “service” or a “sacrifice” is that is, even in peace time. You risk death and terrible injuries, both mental and physical. You lose a great deal of personal freedom and gain a great deal of worry and anxiety. You risk seeing your friends and people you are responsible for killed and maimed. You spend months and even years away from loved ones. I spent 5 years in the Army as a tank platoon leader & company executive officer, after 4 years at West Point. Of my active duty time, 15 months were spent in Iraq (Baghdad and Karbala). It was, without a doubt, the worst experience of my life—nothing else even comes close, and I got off easy.

One might say, well, this is just the “war” version of military service. Not really. Outside of combat, back in Germany: one soldier in my battalion (slowly) drowned when his tank got stuck in deep mud during a training exercise and the driver’s compartment filled with water; another in my brigade was electrocuted when loading tanks onto rail cars; another young soldier from my brigade was, two weeks after arriving in Germany, promptly robbed & beaten to death by two other privates from his battalion. With our deployment looming, one lieutenant in our brigade went AWOL and later killed himself. And I’m not considering the numerous injuries. This was never summer camp.

When you peel back the superficially appealing aspects of military service—focus on teamwork, training, college benefits, supposed egalitarian design etc., you’re confronted with the fact that militaries are impersonal bureaucracies that (1)  treat soldiers as a means to an end, and (2) are designed to efficiency kill people and destroy things. Both features are necessary , but that does not make them less evil. Participating in those two functions, no matter how just the cause, is mental damaging for many, and deeply unpleasant for almost everyone.

So that’s all cost. Does military service “work” to build cohesion? I would give a qualified “yes,” but I don’t think it’s a generalized social cohesion Smith is after anyway—I don’t feel some deep attachment to the white working class, though I am more familiar with that culture than I otherwise would be. I’m sure I know more Trump supporters than the average (any?) NYU professor, but I don’t think I’m any more sympathetic. I have a bond to soldiers from my *platoon* and a deep friendship with some of my fellow officers, but here’s the rub—it’s based on the shared sacrifice. If we had just spent our time together fixing up trails or building playgrounds, those fellow soldiers would be something I already have lots of—former work colleagues.

To wrap it up, society doesn’t get the cohesion without the costly sacrifice, and creating that sacrifice artificially would be deeply wrong. And if the goal of mandatory service is just to get people to meet people from other backgrounds—say the kind of band-of-brothers level cohesion isn’t needed—surely there are cheaper, less coercive ways to do it.