I grew up in the Volunteer State of Tennessee, so called because of its citizens’ enthusiastic response to the First Mexican War. Maybe growing up there colors my view that wars ought to be fought by folks who want to fight them-and it certainly in creases my estimate of the number of young men who enjoy that sort of thing. So I start with a prejudice against conscription, anchored in a belief that it wouldn’t be necessary in a healthy society.

That’s why I viewed with suspicion a recent report from the Ford Foundation called National Service, What Would It Mean? I thought it was going to make a case for reinstituting the draft. But in fact it’s something far worse, and I hope it is just ignored.

According to a summary in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the report is hot for the idea of Americans’ serving the public good at public expense. By the public good, it doesn’t mean just the armed forces, and by Americans it doesn’t mean just late teenagers: The writers think such a program could well enlist the retired, victims of midlife crisis, displaced homemakers, and others of the idle, unskilled, or directionless. They worry about the negative effects on some teenaged mothers, for example-but by and large they like the idea of Americans donating a year or two of their lives to the State, involuntarily if it comes to that. 

The report examines just four possible plans. One would leave service voluntary , just greatly expand the Peace Corps and VISTA and stuff like that. Provide more alternatives, you understand. Since it’s a little pricey say, $2.6 billion, in round numbers and since it hasn’t escaped the authors’ notice that the Great Society is on the back burner for the duration, their other three plans involve a little coercion, to bring in community service at below-market prices. 

The simplest and probably the cheapest would require high-school seniors to do 240 hours of unpaid service to receive a diploma. The authors say this enterprise would cost a mere $20 million or so, for administration. (Reaganomics means austerity, remember?) But the Chronicle article says they believe that even with this bare-bones approach, “opportunities for personal growth would be substantial.

A third plan would reinstitute the draft, make it universal, and offer a choice of two years’ active military service, five years in the reserves, or one year of civilian service. (Do these guys live in the same world I do? One year picking up litter in the national parks equals two years of active service in the military? Maybe the press release got the numbers switched.) The report-writers worry that this might violate the Bth Amendment’s prohibition of involuntary servitude; why the draft never did that before eludes me.

The last brilliant idea, and the authors’ fave rave, is a “universal” pro gram requiring one year of national service from every I 8 year old, or the payment of a 5 percent income-tax surcharge in perpetuity. This would “develop more public services than could be offered through any other program,” but the authors admit that they don’t have a clue how much it would cost. If everyone takes the 5 percent buy-out option it looks like it could be a real money-maker. Of course, we’re trying right now to take poor folks off the tax rolls altogether, which would remove their incentive to enlist, so we might wind up with a National Service Corps composed exclusively of young people who expect to make a lot of money some day. 

Nobody asked me, but let’s start over. Did the Ford Foundation’s report-writers ever consider the philosophical objections to compulsory service as anything other than a possible source of “noncooperation”? Maybe they did, and the Chronicle just didn’t find it worth mentioning. Any way, for starters, may we take it as axiomatic that we shouldn’t force people to donate a substantial part of their lives to the state without compelling reason? That clearly follows from my-and, I would insist, America’s-default libertarian assumption that free men and women shouldn’t be forced to do anything without a damn good reason. 

The question then becomes, what is a “compelling” reason’ National defense is such a reason-and maybe the only one. Repairing rusty bridges or running inner-city youth programs won’t do. And God knows the point of a compulsory program isn’t to provide “opportunities for personal growth” (although that might happen). Still with me? 

So if a draft is necessary to defend the nation, it’s a sad day for the nation, but let’s draft, by all means. If it’s not necessary for that reason, though, then (a fortiori) there’s no case for compulsory national service of any sort. 

Now, I recognize that the social consequences of our present, all volunteer force are probably unfortunate. Another Vietnam War would be fought by roughly the same blue-collar boys who fought the last one, with even fewer young urban professionals than before. True, the fact that our soldiery would all be volunteers might buy us peace, if only in the sense of peace and quiet. As soon as the draft was abolished, recall, Vietnam protest backed off from a rolling boil to a simmer. And today’s students would undoubtedly be noisier about American involvement in Central America if they believed they might actually have to go there. But whether this is a reason to favor an all-volunteer force or to oppose it isn’t entirely clear. 

And, anyway, it’s a side-issue. We’re concerned here with whether a draft is necessary for our defense, not whether it would better serve social justice or foreign policy. 

I’ve asked this question of a lot of people who know a lot more about this than I do-which isn’t hard. Many say that the expense of our volunteer armed forces is exorbitant, but there we’re all entitled to an opinion, and I beg to differ. We ought to be willing to pay what it takes to defend ourselves. No, the question is whether we are paying enough-whether we can pay enough-to do that. 

What are the military consequences of relying on volunteers? Can they fight modern warfare? Will they? Here, unfortunately, opinions differ. The Pentagon line seems to be: no problem. That it’s an official line doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but there are plenty of junior officers and civilian students of the military who disagree. And among them, there’s a good deal of talk about reviving the draft, in some form or other. 

One arrangement to be avoided at almost any cost, everyone agrees, is the old system, under which young men who Were rich enough or smart enough to stay in school until age 26 didn’t have to go to Vietnam. The upshot is that we now have a generation of ministers and tenured academics whose calling was, in many cases, faint. As well as a lot of justifiably ticked-off veterans. 

Most advocates of a reinstated draft favor some system of universal service, on grounds of both justice and political good sense. And the idea doesn’t outrage public opinion (although that in itself is no reason to do it): 65 percent of adults favor compulsory one-year service; even 58 percent of those 18 to 24. 

But if we have to have a military draft, let’s do it frankly. Forget the Ford Foundation’s plan to smuggle it back in as an alternative to forestry work. If it has to be done, let’s have universal military training. If we’re going to draft 18 year olds, let’s put them all in uniform and let them work out with bayonets. 

After basic training, if we don’t need all those soldiers (and assuredly we don’t), then let them do “public service” work-but they should do it in uniform, as soldiers. Nobody says soldiers can’t repair roads, teach people to read, assist in public-health clinics. (Alternatively, we could station one every 20 feet along our southern border to interdict drugs and illegal immigrants. We could call it “Hands Across South Texas.”) 

What about that teenaged mother the Ford Foundation is worried about? And my wife reminds me that there are other people-ballet dancers, for instance-who really can’t spare a year at age 18. That’s easy. They can get deferments. But they’ll be deferments. And for each year they put their service off, they’ll serve an extra month. So if they don’t get around to it until they’re 30, when their 15-year old daughters have children of their own, or their ballet careers are over, or whatever, they’ll serve a year longer than an 18 year old. 

But even those 30-year-old grand mothers and retired dancers should be in uniform. So should draftees with hernias and flat feet and unusual sexual preferences. Universal would mean universal and putting conscripts in uniform would tell them, in effect: We wouldn’t do this to you if it weren’t important.