These are the views of this author only, and do not necessarily represent the views of Sandboxx.
It does not require great insight for us, as Americans, to realize that we are as hopelessly divided along partisan and ideological lines as perhaps we have ever been in the post-Civil War era. While we struggle with this seemingly insurmountable political strife, we are also simultaneously beset by an epidemic of never-ending gun violence. Feelings of extreme alienation and grievance felt by some amongst us, directed against various manifestations of “the other,” somehow seem only alleviated by acts of mass violence against those understood — however incomprehensibly — as posing some kind of mortal threat to the mass shooters themselves.
How do we overcome these twin illnesses within our society? How do we move toward a civic society where differences do not mean hatred and insurmountable division, but rather, are seen as healthy expressions of civic engagement and as signs of a robust democratic republic? How do we expunge these feelings of extreme alienation, hatred, and paranoia against “the other?”
I would put forward that, given the absence so far of any other effective remedy, and because I assess that the benefit would be significant in and of itself, the solution to these problems is a period of mandatory service for all Americans once they turn 18.
Some countries already practice mandatory national service
The idea of mandatory national service is not new or radical. Various countries around the world have one, and the idea has been batted around in America for decades. To be clear, I am not speaking about a military draft, but rather, a period of peacetime military or civil service for all Americans once they turn 18.
Brookings Institution political theorist and public policy scholar, William Galston, made a good case for mandatory service in a 2012 article Citizenship and Civic Attachment: The Case for a Universal Service Lottery.
Galston prefaced his suggested mandatory service program by explaining that “citizenship is increasingly understood as individual liberty without reciprocal responsibility” in America. He coined the term “spectatorial citizenship,” in which the American all-volunteer military force has contributed to a feeling amongst the populace that “good citizens need not be active, but can watch others doing the public’s work on their behalf.”
Galston went on to suggest the creation of a universal term of 18 months of mandatory service for all 18-year-olds who are capable of performing it. They would have a choice of military or full-time civilian service, and would be compensated a reasonable stipend in return. If institutions could not handle the influx of many young people, Galston suggested that a universal lottery could decide who actually served.
This author agrees with Galston that such a program is necessary, and would prove a great benefit to society. However, I would differ with him in suggesting that we should find a way to incorporate all 18-year-olds (with few medical exceptions) between the military, peace corps, local governments, AmeriCorps, and other organizations that might have to be created for the purpose. I believe it is essential for all young people to experience this short period of service if its benefit is to be fully accrued to the entirety of American society.
The benefits of universal military service
In terms of how such a program would benefit society, imagine the increased engagement that would occur between Americans of different races, religious creeds, socioeconomic backgrounds, and geographic regions over that 18-month period. American servicemembers people are already exposed to this phenomenon when they join the military. Millions of them can attest to how they met people from all across the country, of all different backgrounds and races, while they served in the U.S. military. I know I can, despite the fact that I served in a unit with far less diversity than in the wider U.S. military.
Such a program would be invaluable in removing our young people from their self-centric, regionally-cloistered, single-ideology fishbowls and exposing them to people, ideas, and backgrounds fundamentally different from their own. In this way, not only will they come to see “the others” as non-threatening, but they will ideally cease seeing them as “the others” at all. That is the end goal: for all of us to appreciate that we are all Americans, despite the differences that too often define us.
Universal military service isn’t the same as a draft
Further, such a program does not need to be, nor should it be, a military-only one. There has to be room for those opposed to military service, or incapable of performing it. Civilian programs that meet this requirement for 18 months of service would offer the same benefits of bestowing a feeling of civic engagement and appreciation for service. This should also not be a military draft, in the sense that the period of service includes being sent to war. In fact, those 18-year-olds should be barred from combat roles of any type, unless they explicitly elect to fully join the U.S. military in lieu of their mandatory service.
Such a prohibition should prevent opposition from those in American society terrified of the prospect of their children being sent to war. The short duration of service should also serve to alleviate concerns that such a period of service will be disruptive to one’s life. The benefit to the individual and society as a whole far outweighs the flawed notion of the fleeting prospect of success that we all feel as young adults. Where such a real prospect does exist — in terms of athletes or others who need to seize on their youth for success — deferments of service to later dates, or shorter lengths of service, should be allowed.
Imagine the benefits that individual young Americans would experience as a result of serving. Not only would we be promoting active and responsible citizenship, but as Galston notes, we would be “expanding mutual awareness across cultural lines.” This kind of exposure would be invaluable in helping us destroy the barriers to constructive engagement that seem to be erected on a daily basis here in the United States.
Besides fostering this cultural exposure and productive dedication to American society and institutions, imagine also the feeling of accomplishment that would be felt by young people at completing their service to the country. This sounds like a trite and quaint notion, but I assure you that it is not. All of us who have served in the U.S. military, as well as in the local, state, or federal government — even the most cynical, grizzled veterans among us — appreciate that we had the opportunity to serve, and did our part for the country.
Finally, at the extreme edge of our society, perhaps if a young 17-year-old man who is barricaded in his mom’s basement and feeding off a diet of hate and militaristic fetishism, were forced out of that basement and given the chance to actually put his energies toward something productive, he might be able to overcome those destructive tendencies and emerge from that abyss of spiraling hate. Nothing else seems to have worked so far to accomplish that goal. A mandatory period of service might just be what America needs.
Read more from Sandboxx News
- The military roots of Juneteenth and why we celebrate
- Joining the military: How to choose the right branch for you
- American Yogi: The best way for service members and vets to get into yoga
- Army program connects Soldiers with civilian career opportunities
- 4 civilians who earned the title of Honorary Marines