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.
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.”