Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

For a brief moment after Sept. 11, the prospect of a draft seemed imminent. It quickly became clear, however, that the military neither needed nor wanted an influx of raw conscripts to fight terrorism. This reality was greeted in certain quarters with something verging on disappointment. Here we were, our outrage burning, our fear palpable and our charity flowing, ready to do our bit for our country, only to be told this war would be fought in the malls.

Nevertheless, the idea of a draft won’t die. Not a bad, class-biased Vietnam-era draft, but an equitable, united-we-stand, World War II one. Indeed, it would be more equitable because women would be called to service as well as men. In an era when even the Army offers recruits 212 ways to be a soldier, the 21st century draftee would have choices about how he or she would serve: guarding nuclear power plants, bringing meals to the elderly, organizing emergency preparedness for the bioterror attack of our nightmares.

The idea of reviving the draft with a civilian component isn’t new. Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University, first proposed a social-service draft in the `80s. His vision, dramatically transformed by the political process, ultimately took shape as Americorps, authorized by Congress in 1993. Other advocates, such as journalist Mickey Kaus (the man behind and communitarian Amitai Etzioni, have promoted a universal civilian draft that would strengthen community, ameliorate social problems and correct inequality.

At a time when even Bill Clinton was telling us the era of big government was over, a draft didn’t have a prayer. There was no political future in a proposition that would force young people to give up months or years that could otherwise be spent investing in stocks, building resumes and working at Internet startups. The civilian draft, with its rhetoric of social service and sacrifice for the greater good, was one those quixotic attempts-like anti-globalization and Buy Nothing Day-to push back the tide of the triumphant marketplace individualism.

Yet while the forces of anti-globalization have been completely disoriented by Sept. 11 and the sentiments of Buy Nothing Day now verge on treason, a military/civilian draft has more advocates than ever. Not because we actually need the man- and womanpower it would provide. No, we want Uncle Sam, not the other way around.

The draft is appealing today for just the same reason it was anathema a short time ago: It upholds values not found in consumer culture. The marketplace fractures society into ever more individuated pieces, while a universal draft treats everyone the same. Consumers are encouraged to indulge; a draft requires sacrifice. The private sector puts its faith in individual effort; a national service corps is collective. The marketplace’s highest value is choice; mandatory service places duty higher.

The terrorist attacks not only put a dent in consumer confidence, they exposed needs and desires that consumer culture, for all its contemporary emphasis on spirituality, cannot answer.

Which is all very fine but for one thing. When it comes to opinions about the draft, the old wisdom still applies: Never trust anyone over 30. It is all very well to laud the society- and character-building virtues of mandatory service when one is not actually in danger of serving. What say the kids who would have to answer the call?

Oddly enough, young people may be less hostile to the idea of a civilian draft than expected. In 1999, when the prospect of a draft was as likely as hijacked planes being used as bombs, Rasmussen Research asked whether all 18-year-olds should be required to give two years to government service. Only 8 percent of those under 30 liked the idea. But only 16 percent were against it. The vast majority were “not sure.”

We can only guess what they were not sure about. Were these the mixed feelings of people who felt government service was a good thing, but who were too busy planning to become millionaires and retire by 40 to be bothered?

These days, curious students line up six deep at the CIA table on campus career day. The crowds part-even applaud-when ROTC students on fitness runs pass through the quad. Public service is suddenly a viable career option, if one can find a place to serve: The voluntary Americorps already has twice as many applicants as it has openings.

It’s too bad. The will to do one’s duty for one’s country is a terrible thing to waste.