“Although it might not have been glamorous, my time in the military helped me through challenges that currently burden many young Americans.”
fter graduating from high school, I did not move into a college dorm. Instead, I had my head shaved, and I began sleeping in a room with 15 strangers and waking up at 5 a.m. I had no choice. I was conscripted in my home country: Singapore.
Although it might not have been glamorous, my time in the military helped me through challenges that currently burden many young Americans. Teenagers have faced a mental health epidemic over the last decade, worsened by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and habitual social media use. Their physical and mental fitness have dropped to record lows. And when these young people get to college, they often close themselves off to opposing viewpoints, and recent events regarding anti-Semitism on college campuses reveal that some students lack critical thinking and moral clarity.
These problems can be addressed through military service, which could justify restarting peacetime conscription in the United States. The low mental and physical fitness of today’s young Americans—obesity, drug use, low test scores—disqualifies 77% of those aged 17 to 24 from serving in the military without a waiver. But reviving conscription could prompt expanding the preparation programs that exist for basic training to make all recruits fitter. In Singapore, the army gives less-fit individuals office jobs that still have an army-like disciplinary structure.
The disciplinary structure is hard on recruits. In the Singapore Army, discomfort was a daily experience, from the several hours of fitness drills, combat training, and military strategy lectures. We would sweat in Singapore’s heat and humidity the entire day and only receive access to showers late at night. We also faced tough consequences for minor mistakes. If just one person brought his phone to a training session, which was almost always prohibited, that meant 60 push-ups for the entire platoon. If just one person had his bed messy or locker dirty during a check, that was 60 push-ups as well. If we talked back to our commanders, that meant no returning home for a weekend.
Yet learning to accept these discomforts has benefits, according to a growing body of psychological research. One 2022 study found that pursuing discomfort can motivate personal growth. Since we had no choice in the military, we eventually learned to embrace the hardship. It trained us later to deal gracefully with everyday stresses in our civilian lives. Since we soldiers struggled collectively, we learned that feeling sad or angry about missing better times was natural.
Seeing each other struggle as a normal thing, too, can improve mental fitness. Recent research shows that shaming oneself for having negative emotions can hurt mental health. Also to our benefit, we could hardly access social media while serving. I could not use social media applications to frustrate myself that many of my high school peers were already having fun in college.
Beyond conscription ameliorating the mental health epidemic, young Americans would also learn to embrace one another’s differences. Race and class are among the starkest dividing lines in the United States today. Service in the military, where the collective is more important than the individual, would enable young Americans to live and work with others from different backgrounds.
Witnessing the harsh reality of military service would help many young Americans gain perspective. Before they enter college, an ideological echo chamber, the military will test what Rob Henderson has called “luxury beliefs.” Currently, many young people tend to preach such beliefs—such as divesting from fossil fuels or eroding the nuclear family structure—to signal their membership in the elite class. But, according to this theory of luxury beliefs, such causes disregard the reality of those who are not part of the social elite and who are disproportionately impoverished by single-parent families or whose countries are still developing and, thus, rely heavily on fossil fuels.
In the military, the way status is conferred is through actions and not beliefs. I observed that the most respected recruits helped their peers. The least respected were the least helpful. This equation taught me the simplest way to be a moral force to others: deeds.
Things work differently in college. Our beliefs determine the groups we join, and our grades and the name of our college signal our value to others. But the recent anti-Semitic and Islamophobic atmospheres on elite campuses show us that we are out of touch with the real world. We can no longer weaponize appearance against reality. Time in the military will drill that into us.
Aman Majmudar is a senior at the University of Chicago and a veteran of the Singapore Army. His guest essays have been published in Times Higher Education, The Scientist, Undark, and other outlets.