How to Defeat ISIS With Millennial Spirit and Service

Terrorism and other 21st-century challenges require sacrifice shared by all Americans.

Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014.
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
June 16, 2015, 10:48 a.m.

I know a bet­ter way to fight IS­IS. It starts with an idea that should ap­peal the bet­ter an­gels of both hawks and doves: Na­tion­al ser­vice for all 18- to 28-year-olds.

Re­quire vir­tu­ally every young Amer­ic­an — the civic-minded mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion — to com­plete a year of ser­vice through pro­grams such as Teach for Amer­ica, Ameri­Corps, the Peace Corps, or the U.S. mil­it­ary, and two things will hap­pen:

1. Vir­tu­ally every Amer­ic­an fam­ily will be­come in­tim­ately in­ves­ted in the na­tion’s biggest chal­lenges, in­clud­ing poverty, edu­ca­tion, in­come in­equal­ity, and Amer­ica’s place in a world afire.

2. Mil­it­ary re­cruit­ing will rise to meet threats posed by IS­IS and oth­er ter­ror­ist net­works, giv­ing more people skin in a very dan­ger­ous game.

(RE­LATED: What Should the U.S. Do About IS­IS?

This may seem like a rad­ic­al plan un­til you com­pare it with two al­tern­at­ives: the status quo, which clearly isn’t work­ing, or a mil­it­ary draft, which might be the bold­est and fairest way to wage the long war against Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ists.

Re­mem­ber in Septem­ber when the be­head­ings of two Amer­ic­ans gal­van­ized the na­tion against IS­IS? Pres­id­ent Obama, who had dis­missed IS­IS as a “JV team,” prom­ised, “We will de­grade and ul­ti­mately des­troy” the Is­lam­ic State. Nine months later, IS­IS is win­ning.

In a pier­cing ana­lys­is, my col­league Kristin Roberts cut through the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an spin to de­scribe two op­tions we face in deal­ing with a “leth­al, stra­tegic­ally smart, and tac­tic­ally ef­fect­ive ad­versary.”

The United States — un­der Barack Obama or the next pres­id­ent — can choose to sit this out, to let Sunni fight Shia and then Wah­h­abi fight Sunni un­til some res­ol­u­tion is found. The risk as­so­ci­ated with this op­tion is that what re­mains stand­ing could be the slave-hold­ing, wo­man-rap­ing, Chris­ti­an- and Jew-killing ter­rit­ory known as the Is­lam­ic State, which will not pause to rel­ish vic­tory but in­stead set sights on Europe and the United States.

Or the United States — un­der Barack Obama or the next pres­id­ent — can choose to en­gage ag­gress­ively, hop­ing that a great­er as­sault than what’s be­ing ac­com­plished by U.S. air­power and on-the-ground train­ing will stop IS­IS from des­troy­ing the gov­ern­ments in the re­gion that still take Wash­ing­ton’s calls. The cost of this choice is great: money and, more im­port­antly, blood.

If you prefer the first op­tion, this column isn’t for you.

If you choose the course of con­flict and sac­ri­fice, un­der­stand that a “great­er as­sault” would re­quire con­sid­er­ably more U.S. air­craft, mil­it­ary ad­visers, and com­bat troops. Es­tim­ates for “boots on the ground” vary from 10,000 (Sen. John Mc­Cain and Gen­er­al An­thony Zinni, former head of Cent­ral Com­mand) to 25,000 (mil­it­ary ana­lysts Kim and Fred Kagan) in Ir­aq alone — and as high as 100,000 to com­pletely des­troy IS­IS (former CIA Deputy Dir­ect­or Mi­chael Mo­rell).

(RE­LATED: What IS­IS Really Wants)

Whatever the num­ber, it would be big — and would re­main so for years, if not dec­ades. Obama already is ey­ing a net­work of bases in Ir­aq, which may need to re­main in­def­in­itely.

Also un­der­stand that a sus­tained fight against IS­IS would de­mand a new stream of troops. This coun­try has already asked too much of too few. Re­deploy­ments — cyc­ling the same men and wo­men through com­bat again and again and again and again and again — is un­sus­tain­able and un­fair. Just a tiny frac­tion of so­ci­ety lives with the res­ults: phys­ic­al and men­tal in­jur­ies, per­son­al fin­ance and ca­reer prob­lems, re­tire­ments and long-term dis­ab­il­it­ies.

One way to truly level the costs would be to re­in­state the mil­it­ary draft and im­pose a war tax, the cause of lib­er­al New York Demo­crat Charles Ran­gel, an 84-year-old Korean War vet­er­an. “When I served, the en­tire na­tion shared the sac­ri­fices through the draft and in­creased taxes, but today, only a frac­tion of Amer­ica shoulders the bur­den,” he said. “If war is truly ne­ces­sary, we must all come to­geth­er to sup­port and de­fend our na­tion.”

The Draft Act is highly un­likely to be law, giv­en the na­tion’s post-Vi­et­nam res­ist­ance to the man­dat­ory mil­it­ary ser­vice and the re­l­at­ive suc­cess of an all-vo­lun­teer armed forces. Which leads me to the year-of-ser­vice plan: It stops far short of a draft while draw­ing on the eth­os of com­mun­al sac­ri­fice.

I spoke about the concept with re­tired Gen. Stan­ley Mc­Chrys­tal, who com­manded forces in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq and now chairs the Frank­lin Pro­ject, part of the As­pen In­sti­tute that is try­ing to po­s­i­tion a year of full-time na­tion­al ser­vice — a ser­vice year — as a “cul­tur­al ex­pect­a­tion, a com­mon op­por­tun­ity, and a civic rite of pas­sage for every young Amer­ic­an.” His lo­gic tracks with mine.

First, he’s not sure Obama is fully com­mit­ted to the goal of des­troy­ing IS­IS.

Second, if this pres­id­ent or his suc­cessor gets ser­i­ous about IS­IS, Mc­Chrys­tal said the ef­fort would re­quire an in­ter­na­tion­al co­ali­tion and more U.S. troops. “Even if we didn’t need a draft” to drum up the re­quired troops, Mc­Chrys­tal said, “I would ar­gue we need a draft, be­cause it forces na­tion­al com­mit­ment.”

He knows a draft isn’t in the cards. A na­tion­al com­mit­ment to “ser­vice years” would prime the pump of an all-vol­un­tary mil­it­ary, Mc­Chrys­tal said, while unit­ing the coun­try in sac­ri­fice.

It’s not a draft, but it’s not noth­ing.

“A prob­lem in Amer­ica is we’ve let the concept of cit­izen­ship di­min­ish in­to a series of gripes,” Mc­Chrys­tal told me. “One of the ways we can re­build that sense of own­er­ship, sense of shared own­er­ship, is through ex­per­i­ence, and so I be­lieve that every young per­son de­serves — I don’t think this is an oner­ous thing — de­serves the ex­per­i­ence of be­ing part of something big­ger than them­selves.”

Bow­ing to polit­ic­al real­it­ies in risk-averse Wash­ing­ton, the Frank­lin Pro­ject aims to make a ser­vice year a so­cial ex­pect­a­tion rather than a leg­al re­quire­ment. I would man­date it. So would Mc­Chrys­tal — if he had his way.

While IS­IS and oth­er ter­ror­ist groups are hav­ing no trouble re­cruit­ing sui­cide bombers, Mc­Chrys­tal said, Amer­ic­ans are strug­gling to re­define their na­tion­al iden­tity for the 21st cen­tury. “A year of ser­vice for young Amer­ic­ans would be a step,” he said. “Not a pan­acea, a step.”

I think we should take it.

NOTE: The ori­gin­al ver­sion of this column over­stated Mc­Chrys­tal’s es­tim­a­tion of troops re­quired to erad­ic­ate IS­IS. He did not con­firm es­tim­ates made by oth­ers.

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