Olympics fiasco shows the case for a voluntary National Service
With the British Army asked to do more with less, a youth public service scheme makes sense
GENERAL Stanley McChrystal's proposal that the United States should consider bringing back the draft has brought howls of derision from those with bitter memories of the Vietnam war. For The Guardian, Matthew Harwood blogged, "There's a reason why the word conscript pairs so well with the word slave: both become objects who no longer own themselves."
But perhaps McChrystal's basic argument should not be dismissed so lightly – at least, not in Britain. As military planners scrabble to find troops to fill the gaps in Olympic security - The Daily Telegraph reports that raw recruits from Catterick may have to be used - here the case for some kind of youth service, not confined to military service alone, and voluntary rather than mandatory, might be getting stronger.
When National Service was phased out in 1959, none cheered louder than the senior military, who saw it as an endless source of grief, producing bad, reluctant, and sometimes ‘bolshie' soldiers. Conscription had been a means of running a large army on the cheap as Britain was running down the clock on its global empire.
Socially and politically it was inconvenient and unpopular, so no UK politician of rank has seriously considered re-introducing conscription, however retooled. (It was, however, a rich quarry for the arts – David Lodge's Ginger You're Barmy and Arnold Wesker's Chips With Everythin' – which god-parented in turn such anti-war masterpieces as Oh What A Lovely War! and Blackadder.)
McChrystal argues for a US conscript force to do the support jobs at home for the forces deployed abroad. This would relieve the pressure on the US Army and Marine Corps personnel, who have been under intolerable strain during the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A symptom of this has been the high rate of marriage breakdown in military families, and of suicides among soldiers and veterans which continues to soar year on year. As Alexander Cockburn wrote here last week, the annual total of suicides is way above that of the number of service men and women killed in action.
Similar strains are reported here in the British armed forces – and they are sure to get worse as the coalition government cuts the Army by a fifth, from 102,000 to 82,000, in under five years. The services as a whole are being asked to do more with less, not only in war zones, but helping with flood relief and the Olympics.
The shortfall in the British Army is to be made up by a new reserve force of 30,000, an aspiration bordering on fantasy. The Territorial Army has never been an effective force in times of peace in just over 100 years of history. It is hard to see how employers in present times would be prepared to let their brighter and more energetic workers go off to the colours for long periods. At best the government should aim at a professional, more or less full-time, reserve of around 10,000 – made up of men and women who might live in their own homes and be available for service within the UK.
In addition there might be a full-time volunteer service, only part of which would be aimed at the military. It would be a kind of Peace Corps or VSO for today. It would offer the opportunity of 18 months' paid public service, to school and university leavers.
There would be a small wage, some skills training, and help with further education later. For college graduates, an option of service at home or abroad could be available, with a lump sum or gratuity at the end. Only a small number would be required to work with the military, with most employed across the public sector, in healthcare, welfare and the environment. Some might then opt for full-time careers in the civil or armed services.
This is not a question of issuing call-up papers and telling young men and women to become soldiers for 18 months or face jail. It should be an opportunity for young people to get involved in public service, with the reward of training and a future career.
The government's obsession with the market and private sector has hit the banana skin with the G4S saga. Public security run by private enterprise puts public good up to auction to private rip-off.
A short-term public service scheme is no pipe dream. It might do something to mitigate the swelling ranks of disaffected, disillusioned and under-achieving school and college leavers.