Harry Truman had it right

By David Hackworth
web posted September 13, 1999

In 1947, at President Harry Truman's behest, a commission studying Universal Military Training unanimously recommended that every young man serve in our armed forces. But Congress, weary from WWII, said no. They were into cutting the ranks, not building them up.

The man from Missouri saw UMT as a program that would give our youth "a background in the disciplinary approach of getting along with one another, informing them of their physical makeup, and what it means to take care of this temple which God gave us. If we get that instilled into them, and then instill into them a responsibility which begins in the township, in the city ward, the first thing you know we will have sold our Republic to the coming generations as Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson sold it in the first place."

The fact that 34 percent of candidates for WWII service had been rejected because of defects bothered him greatly. He felt that a large number of these young men could have been made "physically fit and self-supporting citizens" if they'd had the advantage of a training program.

Imagine Truman's reaction if he got a look at today's youngsters. He'd be heartbroken by the fact that more than 60 percent -- almost twice the WWII rejection level -- of young males couldn't make it into the service in 1999 because of poor condition, past drug use or past trouble at school or with the law.

As a nation, we march around the world trying to save every village in sight. Yet on Main Street USA, millions of young Americans aren't being imbued with the right stuff that will give them the strength and character to lead America when Generation X, Y and Z end up in the boss's chair.

A number of congressmen want to bring the draft back -- partially to address this problem, but mainly to resolve the military's critical manpower shortage. The fix here should be to close down redundant headquarters and bases and merge Army, Navy and Air Force legal, medical, administrative and logistics departments. The personnel spaces saved by this consolidation alone would take care of the 10,000-man recruiting gap the lawmakers are worried about and give the Pentagon enough bodies to activate at least four combat infantry divisions.

But besides reforming our military, Congress needs to revisit the UMT study for all the reasons Truman cited. Establishing the UMT would help save our youth -- who are fast becoming an endangered species

Here's how it would work:

At age 18 every boy and girl, less the disabled, would report for Basic Training. For six months they'd be put through a demanding and separate-sex boot camp where they'd encounter what too many young people don't get at home, church and school: discipline, patriotism and a footlockerful of values. There would be no Oxford University deferments for the Bill Clintons, no plush National Guard hideaways for the George W. Bushes, no cozy tours in safe headquarters for the Al Gores. In boot camp they'd learn the basics -- drill, discipline, teamwork, leadership, responsibility and citizenship -- while getting physically hard and mentally together.

After basic training, the new citizen-soldiers would spend one additional year serving America in (pick one): the ghetto, police, hospital, education, environmental or assisting-the-elderly corps -- or sign on for another 18 to 36 months and join the Regulars. Those who opted for the longer tour in the military would receive a WWII-type GI Bill education package upon discharge.

The rich would rub elbows with the poor, the black and white and brown would sweat together and become one. Not only would they pay the price of admission to "this temple" and enrich America, they'd join those vets who take great pride that they served our country and are better citizens for their sacrifice.

With vets again filling their ranks, Congress, the media and industry would be stronger, too -- not to mention better informed -- just as they were after WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

The bottom line? The annual cost of military operations in Bosnia, Kuwait and Kosovo would easily pay for UMT. What's more important -- a well-rounded, carefully constructed program to save our country's youth before they self-destruct, or more self-righteous policing of an ungrateful world?

One of most decorated soldiers in American history, Col. David Hackworth (Ret.) is the author of the syndicated column Defending America.




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