I can’t stand Saddam Hussein, the self-styled neo-caliph of the Arab street. He’s a people-gassing, dissident-crushing, Kurd-killing war criminal of the worst kind – a fiend whose personal destiny would be best realized by being the first (and ugliest) defendant to be placed in the dock of the new International Criminal Court of Justice.

Another thing I can’t stand are smarmy American intellectuals wearing expensive suits and who haven’t done 10 minutes’ service in the military but who nevertheless freely recommend that your sons and daughters don camo, parachute into the Iraqi desert and, at the risk of their lives, brave Saddam’s lead, poison gas and biological weapons. Many of these people are self-styled neo-cons (for neo-conservative), and their advice illustrates an ancient principle of military history: It’s always easier to ask somebody else to do the dying when it comes to actual combat.

No, this isn’t a column about whether or not to invade Iraq. I hate war and I hope Bush is smart enough to figure out a way to dump Saddam without risking anybody’s life. But listening to neo-cons like Bill Kristol and Richard Perle cheerlead for an invasion of Iraq got me to thinking: Would the opinion of these guys (and many like them) be different if they had actually seen combat?

Most of the neo-con crowd would have been old enough to serve in Vietnam – and most, protected by student deferments, did not volunteer. But suppose they had smelled death or held some wounded guy’s guts in their hands or witnessed the inevitable (and seemingly unavoidable) dead civilian women and children that seem to be war’s largest product. Would they be as willing to tell 250,000 American men and women in their 20s – many from working class backgrounds – to storm Baghdad and “give ’em hell”?

Not surprisingly, to anybody not completely tone deaf in the current debate over the invasion of Iraq, the most determined opposition to a strike isn’t coming from a bunch of long-haired congressional liberals, or even hirsute collegians. Rather, it comes from the United States military professionals – guys who know exactly who pays when the politicians’ bill falls due. My right-wing friends are quick to condemn ex-General Colin Powell for being a closet peacenik, but has anybody thought that his years of dancing over enemy minefields in Vietnam might have something to do with his caution?

And then I got to thinking: Since America is the world’s last superpower, and is likely to be called upon many times in the future – both legitimately and illegitimately – to use its military force in the world, isn’t it high time that Americans were required to spend at least a year or two in the service? Some of my liberal friends disagree, believing it would create a militarist culture. But experience shows the opposite. When it’s your son, your daughter, or even you facing life in a foxhole, you tend to think very carefully before making those kinds of military commitments.

In other words folks, from your favorite liberal columnist, I say bring back the draft. Only this time, bring it back with absolute fairness. No student deferments so rich guys can duck duty. Want to be a conscientious objector? Fine, only this time you go in as a medic or as logistical support. The people granted an out would be those who were so mentally or physically impaired that it would be counterproductive to have them serve. (And the bar here would be very, very high. I remind my readers that during the Civil War, an entire Army corps – the so-called Invalid Corps – did important military duty even though its ranks consisted of amputees, soldiers disabled by disease and other wounds.)

By the way, being gay would no longer be grounds for automatic discharge. Everybody serves – no excuses. And that means women, too.

There would be other benefits, too. This country is increasingly a place of gated communities, private learning institutions and a widening gap between rich and poor, black and white, Anglo, Asian and Caucasian. Well, a truly fair service obligation would help fix that. For at least one or two years of everybody’s life, they’d have to sleep, shower, eat, march and occasionally die with people they wouldn’t otherwise associate with in a million years. Tough luck. As they used to say, “You’re in the Army now.”

This much I know: Some wars may have to be fought. But if the ranks include the sons and daughters of the policy makers, the fat cats, the politicians and the talking-head pundits, wars will be fought far less frequently than is the case today.

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