Hydrogen cars, drug benefits, tax cuts: This is war?

Calls for citizen sacrifice, once crucial in war, have dwindled to the voluntary and pleasant

Already, it's been dubbed the "you can have it all" State of the Union address. In his one-hour speech Tuesday, President Bush proposed tax cuts, new drug benefits, major funding to fight AIDS overseas, a bioterror shield, hydrogen cars, a continued war on terrorism - and a possible war on Iraq.

But at a time of war, should the president also be calling for sacrifice? And if so, what? This question has been bandied about by pundits since the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. Should Americans drive less, to reduce dependence on foreign oil? Should they be prepared to enlist in the military? Should they pay a surtax to cover war's cost?

The Founding Fathers cared deeply that the citizenry have a personal stake in any decision to go to war - by having themselves or loved ones serve, or by paying taxes to cover the cost. They "worried that if the question of war became an abstraction - if the question of whether the nation should go to war was not experienced as a question of whether I should go to war - then disaster might follow," says Cheyney Ryan, a political philosopher at the University of Oregon, in The Responsive Community, a journal of the communitarian movement.

Right after 9/11, as patriotism swelled and citizens seemed poised to do whatever their country asked of them, the president called on Americans to go on with their lives, return to the skies, support the economy, and hug their children. With time, there were also ways to help with homeland security: community emergency-response teams and the Citizen Corps, in which people train to help first-responders and guard public assets such as utility plants.

Some observers argue that the administration's concept of "sacrifice" has morphed into volunteerism - a perennial White House theme that predated this administration and 9/11. Still, this White House sees the melding of the two concepts - with the added ingredient of faith-based programs - as in sync with the needs of the times.

Call for service

Citizen Corps has already enlisted hundreds of thousands, says John Bridgeland, director of USA Freedom Corps, the White House office that encompasses Citizen Corps, Americorps, Vista, the Peace Corps, and Senior Corps. Yesterday, President Bush marked the first anniversary of the USA Freedom Corps by proposing an additional $450 million for child mentoring, including programs for children of prisoners. He also announced a new President's Council on Service and Civic Participation.

In last year's State of the Union, Bush made the widely noted call for all Americans to donate 4,000 hours or two years to community service. Applications to Americorps (though not enlistment in the military) skyrocketed after 9/11. But Congress hasn't leapt on the bandwagon. Instead, it's held up Americorps funding, forcing the young-adult community-service program to freeze enrollment.

"Look, it's not like World War II," remarked presidential adviser Karl Rove at a recent Monitor event, implying that some of the reporters in the room may be yearning for the days when all Americans were called on to collect scrap items - in addition to possibly being drafted.

"There are people in this country who face addiction and hopelessness and despair. Those people need our help," Mr. Rove said. "It seems ... a far more powerful call to sacrifice than to say, 'Don't drive 10 miles a week,' or, 'trade in your SUV for a Honda Civic.' "

'Sacrifice on the cheap'

But not everyone on Capitol Hill is buying this argument. Republicans with a more libertarian bent object to government involvement in volunteerism, and are loathe to fund it. The Citizen Corps was launched with $35 million, but the White House request for $200 million more is likely to be pared way back.

On the Democratic side, and among some Republicans as well, there is widespread objection to cutting taxes at a time of war. In addition, two members of the Congressional Black Congress have called for a reinstatement of the draft - more, analysts say, to make a point about who serves in the military (mostly low-income people) than to fill any recruitment needs. Only one member of Congress - Sen. Tim Johnson (D) of South Dakota - has a child in the military.

"What we're getting is sacrifice on the cheap," says a senior Republican Senate aide. "Sacrifice has to be something that binds Americans together ... toward a national purpose. Obviously, the foremost would be putting your life on the line.... You could have a wealth tax to pay for the war. Certainly not a tax cut for those who are most advantaged."

Polls show that less than a quarter of Americans believe a military draft should be reinstated. Those numbers go up to about half if respondents are told that the military needs recruits for a specific goal, such as the war on terrorism or combat in Iraq.

Return of the citizen soldier

But even if a full-fledged draft is unlikely, the government has just instituted, with little fanfare, a new form of short-term military service that might make enlistment appealing to those who want to serve, but don't want to make a long-term commitment.

The program, dubbed the "citizen soldier option," provides for 18 months on active duty followed by a period in the reserves and then either additional reserve service or time in Americorps or the Peace Corps.

"Here's the most dramatic change in military-recruitment policy since the change to an all-volunteer army," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic group.

The key to the success of this and other programs aimed at engaging citizenry in wartime is the presidential bully pulpit, many observers say.

"When the president spoke on Tuesday about the mentoring program, that was positive," says the senior Republican aide. "But these initiatives get lost unless there's a national focus and repetition and a campaign around it."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Hydrogen cars, drug benefits, tax cuts: This is war?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today