Can Compulsory Service Reunite the Nation? - Miller-McCune
An off comment by a conservative pundit has reignited the idea of having young Americans do a stint of service for their nation.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, conservative columnist David Brooks commented on a new book, Coming Apart, by libertarian Charles Murray. Brooks heaped praise on Murray and his study of an increasingly polarized America but concluded — with a single sentence — in kicking a hornet’s nest: “I doubt Murray would agree, but we need a National Service Program” to reunify the nation.
His suggestion set the Internet abuzz. Amidst a backdrop of the Republican primaries highlighting deep regional, political, and economic fractures among Americans, Brooks had struck a nerve.
“National service was a hot issue back in the 1990s,” he says. “There was legislation before Congress. William F. Buckley wrote a book about it [Gratitude]. But it’s sort of faded as a real issue since then.”
It hasn’t always been that way.
From World War II until 1973, young American males were brought together by conscription — the draft — in which, presumably at least, all segments of society sheltered in the same foxhole. Today, however, with an all-volunteer military, no such unifying institution exists.
Some kind of national service, not unlike the draft, might provide the common ground that seems to have gone missing. That’s what Brooks was pushing.
“David’s optimism that grand government projects work in general (instead of seeing World War II and the Apollo program as anomalies) is kind of touching,” Murray wrote in an email. Libertarians generally see little value in federal programs.
As long ago as 1977, the RAND Corporation, a strategic think tank, produced a study titled “A National Service Draft.” It said supporters of compulsory service saw it as a “vehicle for a new ‘sense of commitment’” to citizenship. Reflecting on the study, its author, economist Richard V.L. Cooper, says today that he finds the idea “romantic” but not practical.
“There is a lot of good that could come out of national service,” Cooper says, “but no one knows how to get from here to there.” Many countries retain the idea of military-based conscription, whether they are at perpetual war (Israel) or perpetual peace (Switzerland). Only Israel drafts women.
The attacks of 9/11 renewed interest in the U.S. in national service. As the number of volunteers for the military leapt, the notion of national service was resurrected. In a 2003 essay, the progressive Brookings Institute wrote that there was an “urgency to find ways to engage young Americans in public life after a long period of estrangement.”
There is a distinction between national service — as in, say, the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps— and compulsory national service, like the draft. Brooks himself doesn’t support compulsory service. “The phrase I use is ‘rite of passage.’” He describes it as almost an initiation into society, more normative than compulsory. “You would have to create enough incentives to make this ‘passage’ a normal thing, but not something everyone has to do.”
Objections to the compulsory system are many, ranging from constitutional obstacles to fears that service would become a welfare program. More fundamentally, do citizens “owe” their country anything beyond taxes and a vote?
Voluntary national service has been successful; AmeriCorps, which supports community work, has spanned four presidencies.