Headlines seeking to grab our attention over the months of 2019 framed COVID-19 as an invisible enemy, our generation’s great war or Vietnam, naming this event as one for the ages. The mysterious enemy is attacking and invading our lives with results reminiscent of earlier invasions, crisscrossing the U.S., wounding us and claiming lives in full onslaughts or rogue skirmishes.
National and local leaders are struggling to determine the best response to these attacks and garner support for a strategy, but, as in the midst of any battle that feels overwhelming and uncontrollable, the masses are only as committed to a strategy as they believe their leaders are. Public health officials clamor for strategies to reduce exposure to this enemy and slow the spreading disease and death. Working folks and business owners clamor for strategies that keep cash flowing and their lives stable. Politicians struggle to articulate strategies that will slow the spread, avoid exhausting resources while providing treatments and sustain enough economic energy to please those across the financial spectrum.
For the first 200 years of our country, enlisting the masses to fight back an enemy in times of crisis was normative. Conscription was employed from the Revolutionary War through Vietnam to raise standing armies. Those too young, too old or ill-suited for other reasons were given work on the home front creating needed materials and keeping supply lines filled for the battle. In the Great Wars, enlistment papers indicated the length of service as “three or four years or for the duration.” Enlistment was understood to last until the enemy was suppressed.
Strategies for vanquishing this enemy include encouragements for staying at home, practicing social distancing, wearing masks in public and practicing high levels of hygiene.
These encouraged adjustments to our behaviors could be today’s version of conscription, but many are rejecting them as impositions on their freedom rather than understanding them as requirements for it.
Conscription was once a price citizens paid for the common good of their country. Four decades after its official dissolution, the sentiment of many now is that service to country is only acceptable when it is voluntary and does not interfere with individual desires.