Thinking About Things: Ruminations on the Need for Universal National Service

John DeQ. Briggs

Since the inception of this 21st-century, our citizenry has seemingly become acclimated to asking not what they can do for their country but demanding that their country do increasingly more for them.  This situation has been accompanied by a steady and increasing national divisiveness.  Some of this is political; some is social; some is economic; all of it is increasingly extreme.  This is not a uniquely American problem, although it seems to be a problem uniquely infecting the liberal Western democracies.  During the summer of 2020, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer asked:  “What keeps our society together?  What is the mortar in our society?  At the moment, the answer is not very much.”  In this country, the answer is probably more like: “Almost nothing.”  And really, since the end of the Vietnam war, the United States has required very little of its citizens beyond the payment of federal and state income taxes (which are paid by roughly only half of the citizenry), sales taxes, property taxes, and Social Security taxes, and also jury duty for those few who do not wriggle out of it one way or another.  And even on the tax side, there has developed a very loud hue and cry for “the rich” to pay more so as to pay their “fair share.”  We have become a citizenry that wants more for less; something for nothing; and everybody else to pay for it. 

In recent years, there have been many thoughtful articles advancing the rewards of universal national service in this country (see examples from the NY TimesRealClear MarketsTime Magazine, and even The Harvard Crimsonchampioning universal military service) as well as a smaller number of thoughtful and not so thoughtful articles condemning the idea as “A Bad Idea That Won’t Die,”  (Cato  Institute) or as an idealistic but unworkable vision (The Atlantic).  The issue does not seem to pit conservatives against liberals or progressives.  Indeed, many or most people of all political stripes seem to like the idea of Universal National Service upon graduation from high school or college.  The Tennessee Tribune published the results of an astonishing poll last year, the key elements of which were these:

Public opinion polling of 1000 18-24-year-old adults found near universal support for expanding National Service opportunities ….  In overwhelming numbers, young people believe National Service can be part of one’s civic duty (87%), help them solve problems in their communities (86%), and enable them to gain real-world experience before entering an uncertain job market (85%)

According to the Tribune story: “Young Americans are passionate about serving their country, whether through the military or through civilian programs like AmeriCorps.  This poll shows us just how widespread that passion is.”

Assuming the poll is an accurate reflection of the national mood of young American men and women, it is a topic that deserves actual consideration by a purposeful leader.  

As always, it is useful to start with some foundational facts and to understand a little bit about how this issue has been or is being handled in other countries. 

Other countries.  I am going to take only a shallow dive into other countries.  First of all, some basic information, which seems to be reasonably reliable, although wholly reliable data are hard to come by.  In any case, around the world, there are some 85 countries with some form of mandatory military  service and there are many other countries which mandate some form of universal National Service, be it military or other.   

Among the most interesting of these are France, which made the Service National Universel (SNU) mandatory for all male and female citizens age 16 to 25 starting just last year, in 2021.  The compulsory service lasts just for one month, although participants are encouraged to apply their learned skills for a year or more after completion of the mandatory program.  The aim of this civil conscription service is to convey French values, to strengthen social cohesion and to promote social engagement.  

Germany has introduced a slightly similar program known as “Your Year for Germany.” The program offers voluntary national service to young Germans. Participants will spend a year in the armed forces, but, unlike in the past, they will not simply serve in a random regiment. After six months’ training, they will practice “homeland protection” in their home regions and participate in crisis operations there. This is a direct outcropping of Russian adventurism in Crimea, Georgia, and elsewhere in Europe, but equally it is the product of Germany’s view that crises caused by the weather are an even greater immediate national security concern.  The service program is thus designed to strengthen Germany’s resilience in the face of crises of all types.  The German program will also be highly selective, with initially only one thousand volunteers chosen each year based on applications.  In this respect, Germany is following in the footsteps of the Nordic countries, where the selective nature of such programs has made national service (including military service) a highly attractive proposition.  There is a parallel civilian service track through which young citizens can volunteer for training and work in a variety of social institutions, including care homes and hospitals. 

Numbers. Perhaps the largest impediment to Universal National Service springs from the population of the United States and the demographics of its population.  There are about 330 million people in the United States. Of those, there are about 12 million men aged 19-24 and a like number of women. This is a large number of individuals to manage, house, feed, assign, and supervise.  And while it would surely be expensive, the trillions of dollars being thrown at infrastructure rebuilding, and the additional trillions of dollars that the administration would spend on social equity suggest that the cost of managing a universal National Service program would not be enormous by comparison and would probably yield a far greater return on investment for the nation.  Nonetheless, back in 1979, Milton Friedman opined in Newsweek that universal service (then he was speaking of military service) made sense in countries like Israel or Switzerland with populations so small that the military could readily use the temporary service of a young adult in peacetime, and could muster these people into service if necessary in time of war.  

In Friedman’s view, that argument did not hold for the United States given that our population is so large that the military can use only a small fraction of the relevant age group.  At the height of the Vietnam war, only one out of four young men in the age group subject to the draft served in the armed forces.  If women were considered, it would have been only one in eight.  Hence it cannot be denied that the sheer numbers of eligible people could overwhelm any system designed to manage, feed, house, assign and supervise such a massive, conscripted workforce.  It is not the purpose of this short article to address and solve that problem except to say that the program could be feathered in in such a way that the problem could be solved, and that certain individuals would necessarily need to be exempted for reasons of health, disability, or otherwise.  It might be universal in spirit, but not necessarily in fact.

Other Factors. Friedman’s essay also is a reminder that the idea of Universal National Service was first and perhaps most persuasively made in a work of fiction published in 1887, Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, which sold in the millions and sparked a widespread national movement.  In Bellamy’s book, a young man falls asleep in 1887 and awakens in 2000 to find a world of perfect harmony and unity. As it happens, this is because universal service came into being.   All youngsters were conscripted at age 21 to serve 24 years in the “industrial army.”  During the first three years, they would do the world’s dirty work, and be “assigned to any work at the discretion of supervisors.”  These three years were a sort of school and a very strict one, in which men (women were not addressed in Bellamy’s book) would be taught habits of obedience, subordination and devotion to duty.  To Friedman it had an uncanny resemblance to the Hitler Jugend — battalions of happy blue-eyed Aryans marching off with shovels on their shoulders singing Deutschland über Alles. 

Friedman did not find the comparison fanciful since the young conscripted for “good” purposes would have to be given basic training.  He wondered 

Who decides what that should consist of? What ideas should they be indoctrinated with?  What purposes are “good”?  Someone has to assign the youngsters to various activities.  Someone has to enforce discipline on them.  What a power to fall into the wrong hand.  What a power for the wrong hands to seek.

Given the legitimate brouhaha today over who decides what children are taught in our school districts around the country about history, society, race, politics, literature and a myriad of other things, Friedman’s concerns ring even more legitimate today than they did when first written more than 40 years ago.

Still and all, I am not speaking of an industrial army or a decades long requirement, but something quite more limited and benign. We are a divided country sorely in need of unity and mutual understanding.  People as diverse as General Stanley McChrystal and Pete Buttigieg have weighed in in favor of creating a new rite of passage into adulthood and forging a renewed sense of citizenship.  Something approaching Universal National Service is not only broadly popular among those who would serve, but it is easy to imagine that, after a decade of such a program, strangers meeting for the first time would be quite likely to query each other about what they each did for their National Service.  This sort of thing creates almost instantaneous bonding in many cases.  More on this below.

Whatever the basic model or architecture for such a program, some of the features of the Civilian Conservation Core would be excellent.  Citizens from diverse backgrounds sharing common housing, meals, and workspaces seems like a surefire positive in terms of creating a sense of shared citizenship.  At the moment, it is not noticeably clear what it actually means to be an American.  And we seem to be on the verge of being overwhelmed and sadly defeated by diversity, instead of taking advantage of its potential, including its demonstrated befits from the past.

Ruminations and Digressions. At the risk of digressing slightly, I find it helpful to look at our country’s history with military service on the assumption that nonmilitary National Service could or would create similar circumstances. To me, one of the most alarming realities of the United States today is that among well-educated people, virtually nobody serves in the military.  Among what one might call the “elites,” my own lived experience (anecdotal evidence to be sure) suggests that such people do not know anybody who served in the military and do not know anybody whose children served or are serving in the military.  There is this growing divide between military personnel and civilian personnel, and it is getting wider by the year.  Some 16.5 million men and women served in the military during WWII.  Virtually every family had members serving in the military. 

Roughly 9 million military personnel served on active duty during the official Vietnam era from August 5, 1964 to May 7, 1975.  Everyone was affected in some way because of the draft, and this was the cause of much of the opposition to the war. Of these, 2.7 million served in Vietnam itself. Part of the resistance to the Vietnam War was from those who never ended up serving in the military, but whose families became activists against the war to protect the children.  For political reasons, the universal draft was abolished and replaced by a lottery system.  After the war, there was no draft, and the entire military became a volunteer service.  Not unlike a Hessian army in some respects.  While beyond the scope of this piece, there are major problems with and all volunteer military, not least of which is the difficulty of filling quotas due to the limited capabilities of the pool of applicants.  Something like one third of the eligible population suffer from disabling disabilities of one or another sort.  Today our military services comprise roughly 1.3 million active-duty personnel, less than one half of 1% of the US population. 

Having watched my alma mater Harvard throw the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) off-campus back in 1968 (to demonstrate solidarity with the antiwar movement) and not allow it back on campus until 2012, it was something of surprise to see the Harvard Crimson, a daily newspaper published by some of the most accomplished students at Harvard, embrace national military service using the following language, which doubtless would be equally applicable to universal service whether military or not:

That there are immense benefits to the youth of the country and to the country itself involved in the sort of training proposed, is generally conceded. These benefits are, to the individual, improved health, a larger and more national view of his relations, and wider acquaintance with his country. To the Nation, they are the creation and deepening of the sense of community interest and the breaking down of racial, religious, linguistic, and sectional differences.

This is altogether consistent with the poll results reported by the Tennessee Tribune referred to above.  At this aspirational level, it is relatively simple to make out a good case for something like a Constitutional Bill of Responsibilities.  When John F. Kennedy became President in 1961, his appeal to youth “… to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” resonated forcefully.  And citizens now in their late 60s-early 80s seem to cherish their service experience, whether military or civilian.  These people have long-standing relationships with those who shared those experiences.  That is certainly true for me based on my military experience, and I know equally true for my sister based on her Peace Corps experience.  I know this to be true of my military friends and my sister’s Peace Corps friends as well.  I have no reason to believe that it is not more broadly and generally true.

Yet for those millions and millions of citizens who have never been asked to do anything for or give anything to their country beyond taxes and occasional jury duty, one gets the feeling, or at least I get the feeling, that many have some nagging regret that they missed out on some important aspect of being an American citizen.

The opponents of this kind of program argue along these lines: (1) people already delay marriage and childbearing because of modern educational and career demands and further delay would have unintended consequences; (2) a one-size-fits-all mandate would do harm to some people in a society as diverse as ours; (3) people already fulfill obligations beyond themselves that might not be “public-service” but that involve good works like supporting younger siblings, taking care of sick parents, and so forth; (4) people already commit themselves to good works for nonprofit organizations and this should count; (5) if the state is going to coerce young adults to spend a year of their lives doing something, the nation and the world would benefit more from making them spend a year living abroad somewhere; (6) compulsory National Service might violate the 13th amendment; (7) there is already a demand on the part of young people to serve, according to data of a decade ago, so there is no need to have a mandatory program.  

Many of these criticisms seem like hogwash and  nonsense and to each criticism there is a sensible response that addresses the concern stated.  One among several notable facts is that there is no effort by those who criticize the idea to address a real problem – managing the millions of citizens as would be required,  or bearing the immense cost of administering such a large program. To me, the reflexive criticisms also fail to bring to bear any meaningful degree of nuance to manage exemptions, exceptions which would be essential in any case given the millions of citizens who would have to be managed, housed, fed, etc. The criticisms also tend to reflect a uniquely 21st-century narcissism that denies any legal or moral obligation by any individual to the nation or any to larger unit than self or family.

Creating a template for a flexible Universal National Service program is not the kind of thing that can happen without strong and positive leadership from the Executive Branch and it may be some time before we see such leadership from either party.  But in this period of heightened disunity and factionalism, there may be more than a little bit of urgency to attempting a form of Universal National Service, or something much like it, to bring people together to serve a common purpose and in some way to bring about a healthy apolitical patriotism.  

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