Could mandatory national service bring down the walls that divide us?
The recent passing of our 41st president, George H.W. Bush, has rekindled some deep truths about service, responsibility and love of country. Reading about his life has led me to reflect on where we have been, what we have lost and how we might find our way back.
I believe the time has come to consider a year of mandatory national service.
Of late, I fear the forces pulling Americans apart are stronger than those that bind us. We operate in our own ZIP codes, invested in our own narratives, reinforced by our preferred sources of information. The income divide accelerates, and we are polarized to the point of demonizing those who think differently.
We vote, pay taxes, obey laws and serve as jurors. But what other obligation, what other common experience, binds us as a nation?
The disunity we see today saps our energy and distracts us from some of our most pressing social and economic issues—including gun violence, drug abuse and income inequality—while exposing us to geopolitical dangers. Consider the national unity on display after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Can we envision such a response today?
Our present political divide causes me to reflect on my early years, when I was anti-war, anti-military, anti-Republican and anti-religion. Age, experience and children polished some of those hard edges. Through a fortunate career and an immigrant heritage, my life now spans a diverse socioeconomic landscape, with exposure to disparate viewpoints and experiences. But even with that personal history, I often find myself trying to comprehend how fellow citizens can think, act or vote in ways so profoundly different from my own choices.
How can Americans get to know each other better and renew our sense of national unity? We vote, pay taxes, obey laws and serve as jurors. But what other obligation, what other common experience, binds us as a nation?
I believe that a year of mandatory national service—an obligation regardless of gender and economic class—would preserve our heritage of individuality while forging a badly needed sense of common purpose. I imagine a diverse program with many options for fulfilling requirements, federally run and organized around the concept of shared service within the United States. Military or National Guard service would certainly qualify. Civil service programs involving national parks, infrastructure, education, poverty or other community-based programs would also be natural options.
Mandating completion by a certain age would capture a more energetic and impressionable mindset, with the potential for greater long-term impact. A requirement to work outside of one’s own community would also mitigate entrenched “ZIP code bias” while fostering a national identity. Of course, programmatic goals, logistics, governance, management, oversight and costs would all have to be debated—and weighed against outcomes, both tangible and intangible.
A requirement to work outside of one’s own community would also mitigate entrenched “ZIP code bias” while fostering a national identity.
Currently, nearly 30 countries—from Scandinavia to Africa, Latin America to Eastern Europe, the Middle East to Asia—have compulsory military service, and more than a dozen have alternative forms of required national service. On five occasions, the former U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, a Democrat from New York, introduced bills in Congress proposing mandatory “Universal National Service” for young adults, but none gained traction. (While other service-oriented government plans exist—such as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and the FEMA Corps—they are purely voluntary.)
Could a national service program gain enough support to be implemented today? I admit it is a long shot, especially if military service is a major component. Not only does there seem to be little public appetite for sending another generation of young Americans into harm’s way, but the armed forces also do not appear to be keen on it. In a recent conversation, two senior military officers told me emphatically that a return to the draft was not only unnecessary but would create insurmountable practical and logistical problems.
Still, I wonder if our era of hyper-partisanship might not yet yield a renewed hunger for something deeper than ideological victories at all costs. Shared commitment to an entity—military, community, organization or family—promotes a sense of obligation and ownership. Our nation has always changed for the better when united around common goals.
A year of mandatory service, however defined in the end, might improve our national dialogue, soften our economic and class divides, and foster what we need more than wealth, power and prestige: a genuine sense of solidarity as Americans.