National service could prevent citizens from becoming abstractions to each other

It happened 10 years ago while I was stuck in traffic in Jaffa, an ancient district of modern-day Tel Aviv. I was part of a study mission to Israel made up primarily of U.S. women religious from nongovernmental organizations at the United Nations. A number of the sisters were blowing off some steam after an exhausting week of travel and began launching into songs. After a slightly off-key rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” they asked our bus driver, Haim—a good-natured 50-something Israeli—to sing Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah.” He demurred when the sisters pleaded with him. “I’m sorry I cannot do this now. It is not allowed,” he said to their surprise and disappointment. When the traffic jam became a standstill a few minutes later, Haim quietly opened the door, stepped off the bus, stood at attention and sang the anthem in the middle of the street for us all.

It was a stark contrast to my own experience in the United States, where many of us struggle to stop stuffing our faces for a few seconds before a ballgame so we can fake our way through our own national anthem. Haim had completed years of mandatory national service in a country perpetually in conflict; this was connected to something much more immediate and solemn.

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The complex political/military/religious reality of Israel raised many difficult questions, but there was no doubt that for nearly every person I encountered, Israeli citizenship was not a passive experience. They were passionate stakeholders regardless of where they stood on the political spectrum.

I’ve been reminded of that episode numerous times during this election season. The anger and disaffection among our electorate has become so extreme that the Republicans seem about to nominate a candidate whose campaign, just a year ago, appeared to be a surreal bit of political performance art. And on the Democratic side, a recent poll found that nearly half of Senator Bernie Sanders’s supporters don’t plan to vote for their own party’s nominee.

Clearly something is broken in our politics. There is a disconnectedness in our body politic that politicians alone can’t fix; we must confront it ourselves. Let’s do a brief experiment: How many active members of the military do you know personally? If my own anecdotal evidence is any indication, the number is vanishingly small.

Approximately 0.43 percent of Americans are in uniform, but according to a 2015 Los Angeles Times report, our military is “gradually becoming a separate warrior class…that is becoming increasingly distinct from the public it is charged with protecting.” The report makes the case that service is almost becoming a family business: “as many as 80% of those who serve come from a family in which a parent or sibling is also in the military.” According to Rorke Denver, author of Worth Dying For: A Navy SEAL’s Call to a Nation, “It can feel like military America is a separate country within a country, with civilian America existing someplace else.”

Our nation, like Haim’s, is engaged in a protracted conflict, but except for a tiny fraction of Americans, that conflict is an abstraction. The truth is, we’ve become abstractions to one another as citizens, living highly curated lives that minimize our chances of intersecting with anyone who differs from us. This divide does not bode well, but connecting us through some form of universal national service could bridge it. Opportunities for service include the military but also areas of national need like education, poverty, the environment, etc. Given the cost of college and job training, service could be tied to some sort of tuition credit.

Numerous bipartisan voices are already advocating some form of this. Retired General Stanley McChrystal proposed creating a million full-time civilian service positions for Americans ages 18 to 28. “Universal national service would surely face obstacles. But America is too big, and our challenges too expansive, for small ideas,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “The objective must be a cultural shift that makes service an expected rite of citizenship.”

When meaningful national service falls on the shoulders of so few, it can’t be healthy for a democracy. It is time we asked ourselves a difficult question about whether the platitude “Thank you for your service” unconsciously submerges our nation’s uglier truth: “Thanks for serving so I [or my child] won’t have to.”

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Maureen Moran
2 years 5 months ago
Who owns you? Is your time owned by the state and subject to the state telling you that you must serve the state for a specified period of time or face jail or is your time and your life your own? In periods of war, perhaps conscription is needed but the US has not required a draft for more than 40 years. Aside from some public high schools requiring community service as a requirement for graduation, we do not have mandatory service. Do we really want mandatory national service? I do not believe it is in the best interest of the citizens of the "land of liberty".
Bill McGarvey
2 years 5 months ago

Thanks for your comment Maureen. I respectfully disagree… I don't think universal national service is a restriction on liberty. Seems to me that it's far more about having a common sacrifice and a shared ownership/experience of our nation by its citizens. Bill

Roberto Blum
2 years 4 months ago
Although we believe that we are free individuals, we must realize that each of us is the result of many circumstances produced by others who came before us and who surround us at every step of our lives. We really do not own ourselves completely and therefore we have positive duties towards our community. Libertarians only recognize negative duties, such as not interfering in the lives, liberty and property of others, however as members of a community we also have positive duties, such as solidarity and working for justice towards other individuals and specially we also have some positive duties to our community as a whole and we cannot forget our positive duties to the natural environment of which we only are its keepers. Believing these facts, a mandatory national community or military service is not only useful but necessary to heal our present disunion and societal confrontations.
Bill McGarvey
2 years 4 months ago

Well put, Roberto. Thanks. B

KEVIN DOYLE
2 years 5 months ago
We have today in America a lot of pluribus but little unum. McGarvey is absolutely right about the value of a national service initiative. Young people lucky enough to be born here are inheriting a great country that, despite its shortcomings, offers unique opportunities. A stint in national service is a small price to pay.
Bill McGarvey
2 years 5 months ago

"a lot of pluribus but little unum" I like the way you put that Kevin. Thanks. Bill

Roberto Blum
2 years 4 months ago
I completely agree that some kind of mandatory national community service would be a good instrument to unify citizens in a common purpose and thus withstand the disintegration of a growingly individualistic and selfish society. Even more, a mandatory military service would probably also put a rein to unnecessary and arbitrary military interventions in foreign lands. Most parents of children of military age would consider carefully whether those military foreign interventions were really necessary or not, thus applying political pressure on warlike decision-makers.
Bill McGarvey
2 years 4 months ago

I agree...people would be much more discerning about when to use our military if their own children were potentially going to serve.

Ann Roberts
2 years 4 months ago
CATHOLIC WAR VETERANS,(CWV) USA Fr. Vincent R. Capodanno, M.M. Memorial CWV Post 1974. 2115 Maturana Drive Liberty, MO 64068 Commander-John Kopp-(816.699.8719) post1974@cwv.org Service & Welfare Officer-Ann Roberts-(660.744.3625) July 25, 2016 Ann Roberts, Service, Welfare Officer Fr. Vincent R. Capodanno, M.M. Memorial Post 1974-Post address above Home address: 507 Park Street Tarkio, MO 64491 (annroberts977@gmail.com) RE: Article Response: ‘Of Other Things by Bill McGarvey,’ Title: “A Rite of Service” America The National Catholic Review, July 18-25, 2016 issue, page 36. Dear Mr. McGarvey, I am an avid reader of America, and like to be intellectually inspired by your articles. MY America’s Subscription is: JL1 AMMG1 7/81/2016 #310 #68485 (AMER10143323H EX2017WK33. Regarding the ‘Rite of Service’ article (page 36), as a Navy veteran myself, retired Special Education Teacher, Catechist for over 35 years-now retired, and for the past few years been an accredited Service Officer & VA & R Chairman for the American Legion, District 4, Dept. of MO, and more recently for the PAST year for Catholic War Veterans, (CWV) USA-Missouri Fr. Vincent R. Capodanno, M.M. Memorial Post 1974, Liberty, MO, I couldn’t agree with you more that the idea of ‘universal national service’ military service, other forms of service can be an everyday practical experience instead of an abstract ideology of our political system, including I would add of what our U.S. Constitution means and stands for. I just want to make a few positive comments about the article, ‘A Rite of Service’ and add what I think and have experienced of what [service] means. I believe and maybe you do too that the majority of veterans and those that are currently in the Armed Forces or National Guard, or Air National Guard do believe and in their everyday experience somehow sing our National Anthem, try to teach their families and others in their communities what it means to protect our country, profess its Constitution and Amendments, protect its flag, and much more. Is there a ‘military America,’ I am not sure, but at least America according to most all veterans is an America that is part of our nation’s soul always in need of correcting its ills but firm in its Constitutional beliefs stemming from our Founding Fathers. One other point I like to mention is this: a universal national service for young adults is an excellent idea just as it is for our youth who just graduated from high school spend at least 1-2 years in the military, or at the very least some version of ‘basic booth camp.’ This might help solve the national problem of apathy, ignorance, hatred, abstractness of thought regarding our Democratic Republic is a part of our humanity in the United States. My heart goes out to Mr. Haim who was brave and proud enough of his country to sing Israel’s National Anthem. Our (United States veterans) do in fact participate in various patriotic cultural and educational endeavors to eliminate the apathy, abstractness, biggity, hatefulness, of our Democratic Republic. A few examples are the following: participate in patriotic-military celebrations, Catholic Actions-Faithful Citizenship community activities, reinstated the Blue-Star Ceremony-Celebration, sponsor various youth activities to teach about faithful citizenship in communities where Catholic War Veterans, USA are found, Knights of Columbus are found, through their vigorous programs in small and large communities. Finally, I like to add one final thought about this great article, ‘A Rite to Service.’ Truly Service is a ‘rite,’ it is also a privilege and responsibility that all veterans throughout history have taken seriously, especially Servant of God recipient’s as Fr. Vincent R. Capodanno, M.M. (Navy Catholic Chaplain. Thank you for taking the time in reading this letter. Respectfully, Ann Roberts
Bill McGarvey
2 years 4 months ago

Ann,

There really isn't anything I could add to your very thoughtful comment except to thank you for adding your voice here to this discussion.

Bill

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