This Memorial Day, like all of them for 35 years, our thoughts about American soldiers and our debates about when and where their lives should be put at risk are dominated by the contrast between World War II and Vietnam. Almost everyone at the time and ever since has agreed that WWII was the good war. Vietnam, at the time and ever since, was either an immorally extended mistake or a worthy cause betrayed (or dozens of variations on these themes).
But another difference between WWII and Vietnam is usually overlooked, although it explains a lot. WWII involved mobilization of the entire society. Most young and not-so-young adult men served in the military or in some other way. Vietnam, by contrast, even at its peak required only a small fraction of a narrower draft-age cohort. Although the draft was supposed to be universal, four-fifths of draft-age males did no military service and nine-tenths never saw Vietnam. This mundane statistical reality explains much more than moral opposition or cowardice does about why, when Vietnam-age men pop up in the news, they usually seem to have avoided Vietnam.
The future occasions when Americans may be called upon to fight and die are sure to resemble Vietnam more than WWII: Their necessity will be debatable, and they will require the service of only a small minority. That makes WWII an almost useless model, politically. One thing democracy does best is mobilizing a whole society toward a transcendently important goal. One thing democracy does very badly, though, is allocating unequal sacrifice. When some are asked to fight and die while most get to continue the flow of their lives, war and peace becomes the ultimate NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) problem.
Maybe it is no bad thing if military escapades become as politically hopeless as a nuclear power plant. But the essence of NIMBY is that something cannot happen politically even with majority support, if it imposes an unfair burden on a few. Since Vietnam we have tried two solutions: the draft lottery and the all-volunteer military. But a lottery is just a way to allocate unfairness, not eliminate it. Meanwhile, during recent military actions, the press has turned even active-duty members of the all-volunteer military into your standard interest group being unfairly imposed upon. And, judging from those recruiting commercials, America's soldiers are justified in feeling that they volunteered for computer training, not to risk their lives in some miserable faraway desert or jungle.
Every political system, even democracy, is about forcing people to do things they don't want to do. This is justifiable when you need a social consensus. We must decide communally how clean the air should be, but we don't need to take a vote on what flavor of ice cream we prefer. On ice cream, we can each have our own way. That's even better than democracy. War and peace would seem to be the classic communal issue, and most aspects of it—is it worth engaging the national honor? killing lots of foreigners?—need to be settled democratically. But why can't the most painful issues—whether American lives should be put at risk, and if so whose—be settled on the ice cream model? Why can't people decide for themselves?
Take the main should-we-or-shouldn't-we issue of these years: humanitarian interventions. ("Humanitarian" is now a pejorative term for situations with no, or no self-sufficient, national-security issue at stake.) Is Bosnia or Kosovo or Sierra Leone worth some Americans' blood? There would be no need for a social consensus about this so long as every individual soldier was truly acting voluntarily. Suppose there was a volunteer corps explicitly devoted to "humanitarian" interventions. Suppose its members could even pick and choose: Rwanda, yes; Croatia, no ... or, for more money, anywhere you want, boss. A president wishing to use this corps would have to entice or persuade enough members or give up.
Would these soldiers be "mercenaries"? If so, so what? We positively celebrate mercenary motives these days in most areas of life. During Vietnam, the columnist Nicholas von Hoffman coined a brilliant eight-word critique: "Draft old men's money, not young men's bodies." In other words, why should shooting and getting shot at, of all professional activities, be expected to sell at a discount? But actually, the motives of these people are likely to be less mercenary than those of current military volunteers (based on the mercenary themes used to recruit them). Individual motives will differ. Some will be high-minded idealists. Many, no doubt, will be low-minded thrill-seekers. Once again, so what?
And is it immoral to pay someone to fight and maybe die for a cause that is not vital to the national interest? For a war not "good" enough, or big enough, for a national draft? Cruise the Web looking for death. Farming killed 210 people over a recent five-year period, just in Pennsylvania. According to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an American male's lifetime risk of death by homicide is about equal to an American soldier's odds of getting killed during Vietnam. Many jobs are dangerous and life is a tragedy waiting to happen. If idealism or machismo or money tempts someone into a dangerous life serving his country's values, if not its interests narrowly defined, his is probably a life well spent.