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Can Compulsory Service Reunite the Nation?

• March 29, 2012 • 4:19 PM

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.

According to the Corporation for National & Community Service, the federal umbrella program for public volunteers, the national numbers for volunteers has held steady from 2002 to 2009 at 26 to 28 percent.

Sandy Scott, acting director of public affairs for the organization, points to a huge spurt in volunteerism among Gen X-ers and millennials. Their rate of volunteerism more than doubled to 29.2 percent over the last 20-plus years. The corporation estimates the value of services rendered by volunteers last year in the range of $173 billion.

But volunteerism is rarely a common denominator across the divides in America, although there are exceptions such as Teach for America, which offers competitive salaries and benefits to college graduates who work in low-income communities.

“There are a lot of mini programs floating around now,” Brooks says. “The primary beneficiaries are the volunteers themselves. Part of the goal is to get people involved in going to places they would not normally go.”

Meanwhile, with economic times tough, especially among the young, other factors support the idea of a national service corps. In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that unemployment among 16- to 19-year-olds was a staggering 23.2 percent. That could make the idea of national service very attractive, Cooper says. “There are a lot of kids who would join in.”

Brooks agrees. “There are a lot of high school and college graduates out there who would volunteer to work on a program like the Civilian Conservation Corps, for example.” The CCC, a Depression-era program for unemployed and unmarried men, was devoted to protecting the nation’s natural resources. Some 3 billion trees were planted and 800 parks created by the CCC during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration.

As long as it’s voluntary, federally financed national service has proven to be the rare bipartisan program. In 2009, a bill tripling the size of AmeriCorps whizzed through the Senate 78-20 and jumped out of the House 275-149. While that law also created new service programs for veterans and to build clean energy projects, the Obama administration has shied away from proposing any New Deal-scale efforts like the CCC or Works Progress Administration.

After Brooks’ commentary ran, the letters page of the Sunday New York Times latched on to the debate about compulsory national service. Responding to a letter by retired St. Petersburg Times editorial writer Martin A. Dykman, the Times sought opinions from the wider public about a national service plan. Out of 10 published letters, eight favored the idea. “Imagine the conversations around the country,” one North Carolina respondent suggested, “with everyone posing the same question: How will you fulfill this new responsibility in being a good citizen?”

Jeff Shear
Jeff Shear is the author of "The Keys to the Kingdom," an investigation into a weapons deal, Doubleday, 1994. He has been a Fellow at The Center for Public Integrity, in Washington, DC and staff correspondent for National Journal, covering fiscal policy. His articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone and other national publications.

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