All In This Together: The Case for National Service


Every Veterans Day we get pummeled for a week or so with sappy tributes to war and warriors — whether we keep our commitments to veterans or not. We go through the same exercise every Memorial Day, Independence Day, Flag Day and Sunday. No other service to the country seems to count.

This sour view comes, though, not from a disdain of military service, but of a respect for other kinds of service. Here’s to the draft.

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Some countries — Scandinavia comes to mind — require all their young people to put in a couple of years in service to country. We could do that, and it would help a lot of our troubles.

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Group of human hands showing unityFirst, we wouldn’t have a volunteer military where we keep lowering standards for enlistment and feeling free to send them off to kill people in places the main populace never heard of. We could eliminate the advertising budget and all the recruiting offices, and stop glorifying the grisly job.

Next, we could lower the cost of health care by having all the bedpan-shuffling and floor-mopping chores carried out by 18-to-20-year-olds, not undocumented immigrants, at reasonable rates of remuneration.

We could bring the unemployment rate to zero for a demographic most affected, just now, by the persistently lax economy. When they’re done, they all have work experience. Moreover, they’ve been paid in three ways: room and board, a small spending-money stipend, and an education fund, available upon completion of the program. No money for illicit drugs and no care packages from home.

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We could stop charging people money to drive through national parks. The maintenance in those cathedrals would be performed by people in the program.

Habitat for Humanity could concentrate on the Filipino typhoon victims, because every American could have a place to sleep that’s not under a bridge or over a grate. Millions of youngsters would be learning construction skills while rehabilitating the shelled-out terror zones that are North Philadelphia and Watts.

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FOXHOLEFinally, it wouldn’t hurt the cohesion of a country increasingly segregated on economic lines to force people together for a time. Whether it’s in a foxhole or a work camp, there’s something to be said for kids from Spanish Harlem, Pine Ridge Reservation, Scarsdale and Appalachia finding that they have a country in common.

The idea comes up from time to time and goes nowhere. It is said to be politically unpopular, even toxic. All that means is that to overcome the doubts, someone has to assume leadership. For 50 years, Social Security was said to be the third rail of American politics. Republicans, who had opposed its establishment, wouldn’t touch its benefits. But during the Reagan years, some Republicans, either mean or misguided or both, exercised the temerity to suggest that the system be privatized, which is to say, destroyed. That terrible idea has taken on the characteristics of a movement. Misguided or not, there is an example of leadership for you.

In other countries, people are willing to try. We could try here. If no one tries — if, that is, no one introduces a bill or commences a campaign for it — no one will ever know whether national service could succeed here.

SONY DSCJust as you can tell much about a man by his friends, you can tell something about an idea by its enemies. The opponents of mandatory national service tend to be on the political right. Some people think compulsory service is something like slavery.

That analogy won’t make the idea popular, at least immediately, but it’s not a bad way to think about the proposition. We pay taxes because we have certain things we wish, as a people, to buy for ourselves that we cannot purchase individually, and that are good for all of us. That’s the idea, anyway. Taxes are a duty — and a privilege — of citizenship. “Duty,” in fact, is another word for tax. But taxes are usually unequal and always felt to be unfair. The fair tax seems to be the one somebody else pays.

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So what if we performed a duty to the country, of value to each of us individually, and indisputably valuable to the nation, each at the same, flat, one-time rate? Sounds fair, don’t you think?

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Just to fend off some criticism preemptively: this is not a hypocritical suggestion from an old shirker who tried to avoid the draft during Vietnam. Most of the draft avoiders would gladly have served in any peaceful job. Americorps and the Peace Corps didn’t take everybody.