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It’s Time for the Draft, with a Twist

“‘They say the great equalizer is death, but bootcamp is a close second.'”

Americans have been thinking a lot about divorce lately—from each other. There is only one solution left if America wishes to avoid such catastrophe.

Let us admit first that separation—a topic which every American has been talking about in private but kept under wraps in public—was finally broached by The American Mind in November of last year. The anonymous writer, Rebecca, suggested that it was time for a special form of separation, a uniquely American divorce, the details of which are yet to be written. But should America not at least attempt counseling first?

Many will say the time for talk has passed. The Left attempts to suppress open discussion. The Right is exasperated by having valid concerns endlessly dismissed. This counseling session, if I may call it that, will need to be more than just talk.

Action must erase ideological differences and replace them with bonds of cohesion. A recommitment to the union appears likely to be forged in struggle, the way most hard lessons are learned. Luckily, there is an age-old solution that fits the bill somewhat better. Some have already proposed it. The prescription has worked in other countries, and only one institution in America—the United States military—can pull it off. I am talking about the draft (conscription).

Former soldier and novelist Elliot Ackerman argued in Time magazine in 2019, “A certain type of draft could…become a tool to promote greater equality…social cohesion [and] greater accountability between our policies and our population. In the era of the 1%, of hyperpartisanship, of identity politics and divisiveness, [it] could prove a powerful tool to counteract these corrosive forces.”

Before you dismiss the suggestion out of hand, consider the circumstances.

The United States has been through worse. It is fair to say America’s divisions in the past had clear visions pitted against one another—North vs. South, freedom vs. slavery, containing communism vs. splendid isolation—and this moment is different for the sole reason that the nation lacks vision altogether. There is also much to be against—racism, nihilism, censorship—and little to be for. Depression and self-loathing characterize the American psyche more than anything else.

It is for these reasons, or perhaps in spite of them, that America must look at an ancestral archetype that has served her well and could do so again. Like a forgotten savior, America needs—now more than ever—the essence of who she really is: the Warrior.

Mandatory military service is a way to pull society together into a common purpose. The proposal is simple, the explanation more complex.

Nearly every nation, faced with existential threats, has united its citizens in common bonds of allegiance through the shared trials of military service, where young adults must give a small portion of their adult lives in service to the nation’s defense. From Israel to Korea, Switzerland to Finland, nations have built and strengthened internal bonds—often among multi-ethnic citizens—in a way that other actions have not achieved.

If Americans were willing to go to this “bootcamp counseling session,” perhaps for the next decade, a cause d’esprit would help. Artyom Lukin, among others, has argued that America in the geopolitical arena is happily gaining an enemy it needs: China. Yet with or without a potential foe, real or imagined, there will still be resistance to the idea of a universal peacetime draft.

“I don’t want my son or my daughter going into the military,” some would say. “I don’t even want America to exist,” others have already said. So why would there be support for a draft when the country is not actually threatened by war in any serious way and has the lowest need for service personnel in decades?

If America is to learn a lesson here and, in doing so, remain a unified nation, her last chance may be found in the trials and tribulations of a draft.

To answer that question, it is best to take a page from a nation that does not let its young off the hook of civic responsibility. In the process, it is able to gain the most from its citizens.

Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia. By historic standards, Russia is not a docile neighbor. In 1939, there was an attempt to invade Finland. Vastly outnumbered 3 to 1, outgunned, and with no air-force to speak of, the Finns were able to hold back Russia’s Red Army. The three-month Winter War stalled but reignited in 1941 as the Continuation War. In 1944, in what amounted to a stalemate (albeit Finland lost 23% of her territory), the war came to an end. Finland had approximately 60,000 casualties. Russia had 300,000.

What surprised many was the ferocity with which the Finns fought the much larger Red Army. Was there a secret Finnish success weapon?

Much can be chalked up to Finland’s long history of mandatory military service. Since 1878, every Finnish male citizen has had to serve time in the armed forces. It has created a powerful sense of belonging to the nation in general and built highly effective fighting units, specifically. Finnish military units were able to organize quickly, innovate, and make rapid tactical decisions in ways the Red Army could not.

The Red Army was hampered by command structures created along Marxist ideology and party allegiance. Units were diverse, disorganized, and low on morale. The officer corps was especially lacking in experience and training. An internal shamble of chaos crushed the mighty Reds.

If America is to learn a lesson here and, in doing so, remain a unified nation, her last chance may be found in the trials and tribulations of a draft.

I interviewed Henri Mattila for this piece. Mattila is the publisher of Merion West and an American in his late twenties who was born in Finland and participated in that country’s mandatory service at the age of 19. He made the point that, “People are feeling lost…polarized and segregated. There are few experiences better than serving in the military alongside your fellow citizens toward a greater cause.”

But a draft must pay attention to the devil that is in the details. The salient words are “unit cohesion.” That is the term researchers use to describe the well-known bonds that are formed by soldiers, which often transcend bonds of marriage and family. It also the key ingredient that makes a military either an effective fighting force or a demoralized punching bag of lost expectations.

Not all units are equally cohesive. The Russians were not cohesive at all. The Finns were extremely cohesive.

Understanding why some are cohesive—which leads to extremely effective fighting units—and others are not is an area of research that used to be dominated by, unsurprisingly, the Finns and the United States Army but is now being usurped, intriguingly, by China. “Unit cohesion” gets at the heart of whether the draft in the United States would work or not.

Some of the earliest and most insightful research came out of Finland during the Continuation War, when sociologist Knut Pipping, an NCO in a machine gun company, systematically gathered data from his unit over three years of combat. It would later become a dissertation called “Infantry Company as a Society.” Pipping noted that above all else, “membership in primary groups is extremely important for soldiers’ well-being and combat efficiency.” Without feeling attached to specific in-groups, each soldier is more or less useless. Pipping’s work was only translated into English in 2001.

In the meantime, the United States Army had been doing its own research. Questionnaires on everything from opinions about food rations to radio-listening habits of GIs after the Second World War, for example, led to the extensive survey that became known as The American Soldier. Finland continued its research as well. In fact, the two nations often collaborated on research and produced some of the best work on understanding what makes some units cohesive while others are not.

A third masterpiece on “unit cohesion” came from British researcher John Hockey in 1986. His study of an elite SAS group described in Squaddies: Portrait of a Subculture highlighted the character traits and actions that were most important for a military unit to attain high levels of cohesion. They were:

1) Giving of mutual aid

2) Doing one’s share

3) Don’t get peers in trouble

4) Moderation of behavior

5) Loyalty to peers

Hockey also marked these characteristics along a dimension of courage. Any soldier with extremes in courage—either too little or too much—was a danger to the entire group. Almost automatically, members of the group would try to alter any aberrant behavior in an individual so that a comfortable conformity was reached. This social corralling happened through whatever means necessary. Hockey called it “negotiated order.”

For now, American divorce is not pre-determined, but it is looking more and more inevitable with every day that passes.

For example, if a soldier did not do his fair share of work, the “dud” faced repercussions from ostracism to beatings. If the poor behavior continued, he would be isolated from the group. Conversely, soldiers with too much bravado and braggadocio, which are just as detrimental to the unit, faced repercussions as well. These “heroes” were too courageous, too reckless. Few would follow their lead, and they were often shunned as well.

The strange thing about “unit cohesion” is soldiers have long recognized that under physical and emotional stress, where bravery, loyalty, honor, and trust are required, all other differences fade away. It does not matter the color of your skin, where you came from, or your social class.

Mattila continued: “Differences in background had little impact on the overall cohesion of our unit. How often does a young man on his way to work at Goldman Sachs go on camping trips with a high school dropout? They say the great equalizer is death, but bootcamp is a close second.”

But there will always be some things that cannot be overcome. Social class and ethnic background are irrelevant in military settings. Biology, however, is not malleable and hence a difficult issue that militaries of liberal democracies—caught between the cult of diversity and the realities of evolutionary biology—are grappling with rather poorly at the moment. A co-ed military is just one of many issues that must be sorted out in this national counseling session. Some rather bitter pills will have to be swallowed, but that is a discussion for another day.

For now, American divorce is not pre-determined, but it is looking more and more inevitable with every day that passes. And, as I reached the end of writing this, I contemplated a final rejoinder and decided I could not leave without an honest conclusion.

The fact is I have no illusions about the futility of proposing a draft. The American project has been splintering for some time. As an eternal fatalist, I cannot help but think that, in the end, it might be best not to bother at all.

Americans no longer fulfill any of John Hockey’s five basic qualities necessary for cohesion. Not a single one. I do not suppose the United States Army would be able to fix them very easily either.

“Mutual aid”—Robert Putnam’s research on social trust comes to mind here—has gone into terrible decline.

“Doing one’s share” has been replaced by a victim mentality and lack of responsibility.

“Don’t get peers in trouble” has been replaced by cancel culture.

“Moderation of behavior” goes against American obsessions with celebrities, muscles, and swagger.

And “loyalty to peers” was, arguably, never an American quality to begin with, except in the military.

In fact, I have changed my own mind, if no one else’s. I take the proposal back. Finland, Korea, Israel, and other nations with conscription still have their raisons d’être. America does not.

Let the divorce proceedings begin.

Mark Hecht taught geography at Canada’s Mount Royal University, where he received an award for excellence in teaching.

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