National service – obligation? Or putting some skin in the game?
How do you feel about compulsory military service?
Personally, I have no reservations about the draft. I joined the ROTC at Ohio State and learned much about leadership during my years of military service. I’m a veteran, and I think everyone would profit from some time in our country’s uniform.
That’s why I was so struck by a wonderful essay in the Wall Street Journal by General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. He advocated a universal national service program that would offer the opportunity for civic duty to all young Americans.
This is not a new idea. The concept was floated in the 1960s during the Kennedy Administration and then again by President George W. Bush. In 2006, Charles Rangel, congressman from New York, sponsored a bill calling for two years of mandatory service – military or otherwise – from all U.S. citizens between 18 and 54.
From many, the knee-jerk reaction was: “You’ve got to be kidding!” “What about 18-year-old single mothers?” “How much will it cost? “ “Slave labor!” “Unconstitutional!”
I imagine you already have a gut reaction.
McChrystal himself acknowledges the problems. We can barely afford to keep the Navy, Army, Marines, and Air Force solvent as it is. The chance that Congress will pass any new program that entails feeding, clothing and housing an entire generation of young people is about as close to zero as you can imagine.
But even as you dismiss the prospect of seeing millions of uniformed 18 to 22-year-olds, we can’t ignore McChrystal’s insight. An entire generation of Americans is growing up with minimal exposure to the concept of national service as a part of citizenship.
Service is not about “giving back.” That’s what you do when you’re grown up – donating to your college, taking part in a community clean-up, or serving meals at a Ronald McDonald House.
National service is about how young adults can pay their dues for the right to call themselves an American. It doesn’t need to be in the armed forces; it can be by volunteering for programs like the Peace Corps, Teach for America, and AmeriCorps. Performing national service means transitioning from a life that’s been about “me” to working for a greater good.
But here’s the problem. Far more people apply for these national programs than can be accepted. With 150,000 applicants and only 4,000 openings yearly, the Peace Corps is more selective than Harvard. AmeriCorps has 80,000 positions, yet receives more than half a million applications.
It’s not that this new generation doesn’t want to contribute; there just aren’t enough slots to go around. Here’s the greatest, arguably the most innovative country in the world, stumped about how to offer new generations the opportunity to serve.
That got me to thinking about the draft. The Selective Service System is still very much alive. It even has a Web site: www.sss.gov. Although no one is being drafted today, virtually all 18-year-old
males must register. In times of national need, the SSS has the power to conscript people through a lottery based on date of birth.
So here’s a modest proposal.
Let’s amend the Selective Service Act to include all 18-year-old Americans, men and women. Reinstate the draft; but on a very modest level, just enough to fill the needs of a new federal Domestic Action Corps, intended for nonmilitary service. The size of the program would be in line with what we can afford – 50,000? 100,000? Let the bean counters decide. DAC troops would serve in myriad ways – helping in national disasters, counseling in poverty areas, working as teaching assistants, or maintaining infrastructure.
As our economy improves and the deficit shrinks, we might be able to enlist more people. Sure, it’s only a drop in the bucket, but what’s exciting is that ALL 18-year-old Americans would have the chance to be called up. They would still have to pass a physical examination and some would have clear exemptions. In reality, very few would be called (maybe 1 in 365), but everyone would know of someone who had been called up.
Giving everyone an opportunity to serve would take high-level volunteerism out of the domain of the elite, where it is now (over 90 percent of Peace Corps members are college grads), and return it to all of us. With a peacetime “Draft” for non-military service, all young people would have the opportunity to put some skin in the game – that is, ante up the price of admission for being a citizen.
And as a vet, that’s an idea I could salute.
Posted: August 2013