The events of the past months in the Persian Gulf have brought to light a problem of the American democracy that all will, I cannot doubt, wish to see corrected once it is fully recognized. Deployed on the sands of Saudi Arabia and facing possible extinction, are young men and women drawn, in the main, from the poorer families of our republic.
We accept that our armed forces, with to be sure many exceptions, attract those seeking escape from an economically limiting family environment, no family at all or the handicaps of minority birth. It is to these, as all have observed, that the television commercials urging enlistment in the services have been directed.Meanwhile it is the more fortunate and affluent of our citizenry who, while rejoicing generally in the rebuke to Saddam Hussein, remain substantially secure in their gasoline, fuel oil and other energy use and thus in their larger living standard.
It is my own good fortune to live in a relatively well-endowed community with an unusually large population of young men and women of combat age. The commitment of these favored young people to the armed forces is not great.
Knowing as one does the depth of the American devotion to democracy, this is not a situation that one can view with comfort. We are, as in the much regretted practice of the Civil War, hiring people from the lower-income classes to do our military service with its possibly heavy consequences. The affluent stand above and apart.
One obvious remedy would be to reinstate the draft with random selection and service on an economically indifferent basis. This would not, I think, be entirely practical; there could be an unseemly reaction.
Instead, let us establish a special volunteer service corps for the duration of the Middle Eastern troubles. These battalions, recruited at the universities and in the better suburbs, and from among the numerous young men and women now or recently at work in Wall Street, would provide opportunity for military service for those now so undemocratically exempted by their wealth or comparative affluence.
Parents who responded favorably to the Middle East initiative would, one hopes, encourage their sons and daughters to sign up. One thinks of possible names - the Social and Economic Equality Corps, with SEEC as the innocuous acronym.
A limited response, which is not entirely to be ruled out, would drive home the fact that we are, indeed, asking the poor to protect the rich. In the latter event it would be well that we restrain those who yearn to assail and punish Saddam by armed force, including those who seek "surgical" bomb strikes and other precipitating military action.
There would still be for those in our present armed forces that not wholly pleasant life on the sand. This, however, would have some of the aspects of any modestly paid occupation.
At a minimum, those so engaged would not be getting killed while the economically and socially more fortunate escape.
(John Kenneth Galbraith is professor emeritus of economics at Harvard University.)