THE BLOG

National Service Not Military Service

02/25/2013 01:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2013

A debate has erupted over the past year or so regarding reinstating the military draft. Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) has introduced a bill for this purpose.

Proponents of the reinstatement include Thomas Ricks, a fellow at the Center for New American Security, and Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Their primary arguments center on the points a draft would cause greater deliberation before entering a conflict, shorten the length of engagement due to public pressure, and provide relief to an all volunteer army during extended periods of combat.

Opponents of the reinstatement include Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense under President Nixon, and Elliot Feldman, a special project officer and consultant in the Defense Department in the Reagan administration. Their primary arguments center on the points that an all volunteer force is: highly professional and well trained, more cost effective than the alternative; and, it would be difficult to make the draft equitable.

Given the nature and consequences of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in terms of blood and treasure, this is an important debate to have. In our opinion, however, the debate is too narrowly framed. It should be about whether we should have a program of mandatory national service not military service.

We first proposed such an initiative in our book, Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen's Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage. If there were a requirement for national service for those youth of a certain age, military service could be one of just many options they could select.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson called upon us to build a "Great Society." Note that President Johnson used the word "society" and not "country." In the mid 1970s, President Jimmy Carter asked that we sacrifice by reducing our gas consumption.

Since the early 1980s, requests for shared commitments or sacrifices have not been too visible on the country's radar screen. Until the past few years, the national refrain appears to have been "Ask what you can do for yourself." Service to country seemed to belong to those in the armed forces, the well off or the do-gooders.

We are not recommending that the draft be reinstated to correct. We believe, however, that some type of national service should be made mandatory. The service could take one of many forms, for example, military, community, or education.

During the 2008 campaign for the presidency, John McCain and Barack Obama both expressed a desire for more Americans to be engaged in national service when they shared the stage at Columbia University at a forum commemorating the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. However, it is Jim Lehrer who speaks most articulately on this topic.

As the commencement speaker at Harvard University in 2006, Mr. Lehrer stated,

I have come with only one major commencement-like point to make... I believe we should consider adapting some form of national service. No, not a return to the military draft -- something entirely different, and completely new for us. National service in its fullest meaning.

Jim proceeded to recall the lessons he learned about life and himself in the diverse company of his fellow marines during his three years of service. He then observed why he felt national service was so necessary:

... I have never seen us more disconnected from each other than we are right now....We are splintering off into segments, interest groups, lobbies, target audiences, blogs, boxes...Our racial, cultural and religious differences -- always our great strength -- have become an instrument in our great disconnection. Our growing economic differences... are feeding this. Our politics at the moment actually seem to be encouraging it; and our otherwise terrific explosion in new media outlets for information and debate...

Fast forward. Have we as a nation become less disconnected and have things gotten less divisive over the past six years? Overall, we think not.

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009 and other initiatives such as service learning projects for students moved us in a more collaborative and interdependent direction. But, the explosion of the Tea Party upon the scene, the dysfunction of the 112th Congress, the highly charged and negative tone of most of the presidential contest of 2012, and a Pew Research survey that shows the partisan "values" gap between us as citizens at an all time high provide ample evidence that we have grown more divided rather than more united as a nation over the past six years.

In 1930, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an article for the Pictorial Review titled "Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education." In her article Ms. Roosevelt eloquently made the case that the schools and parents are mutually responsible for developing citizens and a commitment to a set of common core values.

She observed,

If the elders look upon public questions from purely selfish angles, with a view as to how they will be affected personally, and not as to what are the needs of the country or the world, then it is safe to predict that youth will do the same. This teaching of citizenship in the schools must be supplemented by teaching and example in the home.

She concluded by stating,

As the great majority of our children are being educated in public schools, it is all-important that the standards of citizenship should be of the best.... we should take a constant interest in all educational institutions and remember that on the public school largely depends the success or failure of our great experiment in government 'by the people, for the people.'

It is 2013. Our public schools today pay little to no attention to the cultivation of citizenship. They devote the majority of their time to STEM and teaching to the test. Soon, they may very well not be teaching the majority of our children.

Charter schools, home schools, private schools, other schools. Where do they stand and what do they do to promote the cause of citizenship, bringing us together, and service to the country?

We are indeed at a pivot point for the "success or failure of our great experiment" in government." Schools and families must play an essential role in building citizenship and the character of the nation. So too should national service.

In his Harvard comment speech, Jim Lehrer said, "I believe what we need is a new hard real-world dose of shared experience." We couldn't say it any better.

National service provides a basis for sharing and potentially bridging divides. In the United States today, service remains somebody else's business.

We need to make it the nation's business -- service to our country and our fellow citizens. That is the measure of true patriotism.

It is not about waving the flag or pledging allegiance. It is about standing up and doing what is required to make America the very best it can be. A program of national service provides the means for accomplishing that. That is why we are advocates for it.

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