The Sept. 11 attacks have inspired tremendous volunteerism and charitable giving, demonstrating that Americans know that citizenship conveys obligations, especially in times of trouble. In the last few weeks, we have shown that we see ourselves as fellow-citizens, not merely fellow-consumers. We have shown that we value purposes and goals in life besides the pursuit of gain and status, and that both compassion and bravery might be among them. And in the media’s overly emphatic insistence that life has changed, in the revulsion (how long will it last?) against the cynical commercialism and materialism of much of our culture, it is hard not to read a desperate wish that life really change; that we become a different, better people, more altruistic, more respectful of each other and less worshipful of money and success.
The problem is institutionalizing this knowledge so that even in prosperous, relatively tranquil years like the decade that just ended — times that will likely come again — we remember how to act together, with respect for our common good. While flags are still selling out, while Americans are still asking what they can do for their country, we should give serious thought to forging a more democratic, egalitarian, caring society by restoring the concept of compulsory national service.
Admittedly, this idea goes against the grain. National service has not been proposed by any recent politicians, because memories of the inequities of the Vietnam-era draft are still strong in the generation currently leading our country, and because Americans have historically resented any interference in their freedom of activity. Even American armed forces leaders now prefer a volunteer army for the tasks of contemporary warfare, which demand specialized skills in operating sophisticated weaponry, not the massing of bodies. In Europe, only Austria, Greece, Switzerland, Germany (where conscripts can chose the Zivildienst alternative duty) and the Scandinavian countries have not phased out national (military) services.
But the operant word here is “service.” Instituting compulsory national service is not tantamount to restoring the draft. It need not be confined to military service, as the European models were. In the best implementation of such a plan, the armed forces would be only one among many options for service. But even for those electing this option, national service would be a noncombatant duty. No one would be drafted into combat should a war happen to break out during his or her term.
The goal of this obligation would be to foster national unity and love of country, not to encourage bellicose attitudes or militarism. Conscientious objectors could read to the blind, deliver meals to the housebound or fight forest fires. So could anyone else who found these activities the most meaningful among the options offered. Other options might include environmental protection, tending the national parks, elder care, tutoring disadvantaged children or any number of worthy objectives, as well as the conventional armed forces.
Unlike the Vietnam-era draft, the burden would fall equally on young people of all economic and social backgrounds, race, religion and sexual orientation. Women, like men, would be expected to serve their country, and like men they would acquire the strength and confidence of having passed through a challenging program. Gender equality in this program would accustom young people to expecting and respecting it in the workplace later on.
The period of service would be the same for everyone, and might be usefully set between one and two years — long enough to provide a meaningful experience but not so long as to interfere with lives and career training. When should it be done? While most people would want to get this low-earning period over with sooner rather than later, individual circumstances might make some elect to do it after college, when they may also be able to make a more meaningful contribution. The period of service could be a natural break point for those who want to take time off between high school and job or college, or college and employment, a way for everyone to have access to the wanderjahre not uncommon among the upper middle class. For those in trouble in college or life, performing national service would provide a “time out” without stigma. Perhaps age 25 or 30 should be the cutoff point.
Before choosing the branch of national service they want, which will inevitably lead to some concentrations by race, gender, education, class and so on, everyone would complete a basic training period of a few months. This would include rigorous physical preparation, as in the armed forces, but without the elements of abuse and rote respect for authority characteristic of military discipline. We are training citizens, not conscripts, building spirits rather than breaking them.
Wilderness survival skills, urban rescue work, emergency first aid, self-defense and weapons skills would be among the required topics. The training might also include studies in basic citizenship, such as reviewing the important documents of American history — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights — that many Americans have never learned and most others have forgotten.
What would ensure that the trainees took the program seriously? For one thing, who gets first pick of assignments for the elective part of the program might depend on meeting performance goals. Those who wanted to tag endangered birds in Montana or train on a submarine rather than pick up trash along the highways would have an incentive.
The basic training period would have a number of salutary effects. First of all, given that most Americans will not volunteer for enlistment in the armed forces, they should have some understanding of what those who are willing to lay down their lives in their defense do. Second, it is well known that mastering difficult but not impossible physical challenges builds morale and group cohesion, which is part of the objective. Late adolescence is a difficult time in our society, and having an official rite of passage would probably be psychologically helpful to many young people. Those who have to pass through official trials might be less likely to engage in unofficial self-testing through drunken driving, drug-taking, gang activity and fighting.
As in today’s armed forces, this training should be coed, women and men should be held to the same high standards as much as possible. It would be beneficial to all for America’s young women to measure their worth for once by their strength and endurance rather than their looks, and for young men to realize how brave and tough their female counterparts can be. Mutual respect between the genders is sadly lacking today, and perhaps this period of service might help foster it.
National service basic training would be the crucible in which friendships are formed. The random mingling of young people of every background could do a great deal to help overcome the increasing fragmentation of our society. Currently, it is all too likely that a white, Midwestern suburban girl will encounter inner-city blacks only as voices on rap CDs, that an inner-city Hispanic boy will never be friends with anyone who is going to an Ivy League college, that an upper-class New England boy will pass from Groton to Harvard to Wall Street without ever bonding with a Mexican-American. And so on. This is not healthy for a democracy, nor for a culture.
Then there is the issue of acquainting ourselves not only with each other, but with the beautiful land we share. As an upper middle class Easterner, I had visited Mali before I traveled to Mississippi, India before I saw Oklahoma. For very different reasons, all too many inner-city kids come of age having never been out of their immediate region. Part of national service could mandate working in another area of the country from one’s home. Certainly this might be a requirement for basic training.
Once again, it is much easier to understand the concerns, say, of Western plains dwellers or Maine fisherman if one has been somewhere near them. It is easier to appreciate why we have a National Parks system and conservation laws if one has visited a National Park or wilderness area. Many inner-city kids never have. What sense is there in singing “America the Beautiful” if you’ve never been out of a slum in Los Angeles or Chicago or Washington?
Overall, the experience of national service could make a significant contribution to changing some of the universally deplored aspects of American culture: most obviously the fragmentation and lack of mutual respect but also perhaps the glorification of staged violence, worship of celebrities, greed and consumerism. As the bestseller lists in the years leading up to Sept. 11 hint, for some time now Americans have felt the need to measure themselves against previous generations, notably the so-called Greatest Generation, and to imagine themselves in situations of danger (“The Perfect Storm,” “Into Thin Air,” not to mention those action movies that now suddenly seem to be in poor taste). It is likely that these leisure interests thinly veil a need for greater significance in our lives and ambivalence about the astonishingly safe and insulated lives of most middle-class Americans. They also lead to an unsettling pornography of disaster with overtones of sadism and schadenfreude. If we showed all of our young people a closer look at danger, if we forced them into some form of self-testing, perhaps we would not only give them a sense of greater purpose, but also strip the false glamour from depictions of cruelty and destruction.
Materialism has filled the void in our sense of self, and in the depletion of such values as altruism, public service and honor, we have concentrated solely on accumulating things. By restoring and burnishing the notions of the common good, citizenship and honor, perhaps we’ll diminish our greed. By emphasizing what we share, by fostering egalitarian values, we might increase self-esteem and self-satisfaction. We may find that the media obsession with celebrities and the rich seems very small and craven indeed. “Peace is Hell” is the title of this month’s Atlantic cover story, and however inappropriate this has turned out to be, it conceals a truth we ought to confront: cultures, like individuals, can become neurotic when they have no urgent challenges or goals. While national service is just a piece of the answer, it might bring us closer to becoming the people that we have always wanted Americans to be.