Should We Have Mandatory National Service?

In yesterday’s post I discussed some of the things American society has lost in the 43 years since the draft ended. These include a sense of national purpose, a common pride in our country, and the willingness to contribute our own efforts to improving America. I doubt that bringing back forced conscription is the answer, however, or is even politically feasible.

Signe Wilkinson

In yesterday’s post I discussed some of the things American society has lost in the 43 years since the draft ended. These include a sense of national purpose, a common pride in our country, and the willingness to work to improving America.

I doubt if bringing back forced conscription is the answer, however, or if it is even politically feasible. After all, for most young people today, the draft means a drink they order at the bar or something that happens in the NBA once a year.

Universal Military Service

The United States doesn’t face the kind of dedicated, persistent enemy and an existential threat that Israel does and that makes universal military service necessary. Since the conflict in Vietnam we have fought too many expensive wars for dubious reasons and without the support of a majority of Americans for there to be any call for a new draft. That’s especially true since it would have to include women as well as men.

But that doesn’t mean young people can’t work together on behalf of a cause greater than themselves and learn important lessons in the process. It’s not that I think today’s young people are any more self-involved and frivolous than previous generations. It’s in the nature of young people to lack gravitas. What I’m saying is that they have no reason to be different. No one has asked them to make sacrifices or think outside their limited experience — nor provided a mechanism for doing so.

Two Years of National Service

The National Park Service: Using a revived form of the old Civilian Conservation Corps, volunteers could work around the country to improve our 58 underfunded and often poorly maintained national parks. What I propose is a two-year period of mandatory national service that can support a number of causes. Upon either high school or college graduation, young people could choose among organizations and services that work to improve our country and its citizens. These would include:

  • Americorps: Volunteers could participate in one of the many programs offered by this organization for national and community service.
  • The National Park Service: Volunteers could work around the country to improve our 58 underfunded and often poorly maintained national parks.
  • The Peace Corps: While this organization works mostly in other countries, volunteers represent America in a positive way overseas while helping others.
  • The Military: Yes, volunteers should have the choice of joining one of our military services: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard. Young people who might not enlist on their own could find military service an attractive option because they would be choosing the military, not drafted into it.

I’m sure there are many other organizations that could use volunteers but can’t afford to pay them. With the U.S. government funding their salaries, as we do with the military, these groups could expand their efforts. By working with different volunteer organizations, a national service program could expand the list of those that are approved. The more organizations, the more choices there would be.

Building Our Own Services

The CCC, for example, put unemployed, unmarried men to work on soil conservations and reforestation. This government organization was responsible for over half of the public and private reforestation that has ever been done in American history. The corpsmen also, “dug canals and ditches, built over 30,000 wildlife shelters, stocked rivers and lakes with over a billion fish, restored historic battlefields, and cleared beaches and campgrounds. In addition, we could recreate some of the new Deal organizations from the Great Depression when the United States put Americans to work in many ways. In the process these people created great things. The Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, put unemployed, unmarried men to work on soil conservations and reforestation.

This government organization was responsible for over half of the public and private reforestation that has ever been done in American history. The corpsmen also, “dug canals and ditches, built over 30,000 wildlife shelters, stocked rivers and lakes with over a billion fish, restored historic battlefields, and cleared beaches and campgrounds.”

A Crumbling Infrastructure

Our national infrastructure is crumbling and there is little political support beyond lip service for fixing it despite the threat to lives, businesses, and communications. A new CCC could start working on some infrastructure projects.

Then there was the Federal Art Project funded by the WPA. It employed artists and artisans to create works of art that included murals, easel paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, theater scenic design, and arts and crafts. The WPA Federal Art Project established more than 100 community art centers throughout the country, researched and documented American design, and commissioned a significant body of public art.

A Time to Serve

I am not the first person to propose a national service program. Time magazine made a case for it 10 years ago in their article “A Time to Serve.” Author Richard Stengel discussed the pros and cons in far more detail and with many more statistics. It’s a long article but a worthy read.

U.S. Representative Charles Rangel (D/NY) has several times introduced legislation that would reinstate a military draft for all men and women ages 18 to 25. He reasoning: “if war is truly necessary, we must all come together to support and defend our nation.”  Rep. Rangel himself volunteered to serve in the Army during the Korean War.

Making a Choice, Not a Draft

What I propose is a two-year period of mandated national service that can support a number of causes. Upon either high school or college graduation, young people could choose among organizations and services that work to improve our country and its citizens. Offering a choice of service instead of military conscription means that young people could select the one that best suited their talents, abilities, experience, and interests.

  • Would it work? Well, it did once. What could it hurt to try again?
  • Can we afford it? Of course we can. The United States is not broke, despite what some politicians and talk-show hosts have to say. We have just chosen to cut revenue through tax breaks and put the money we have into other programs.
  • Would it increase the size of government? I suppose, but so did the draft. I also don’t consider that a bad thing given the advantages that would accrue to our young people directly as well as benefits to the country as a whole.
  • Would I have done it? If service was mandatory, of course I would. And it would have opened up new horizons for me after college, as it would for many young people who have never traveled outside their region, met someone of a different color or faith, tasted different kinds of food, or thought beyond their own wants.

Pride and Patriotism

We don’t need forced military conscription again but we do need something that engages the next generations of Americans, something that imbues them with pride, experience, confidence, competence and, yes, patriotism. When national service is about choice, not force, it eliminates “draft dodgers” because there would be other, non-violent ways to serve.

Think about it

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