Mandatory national service would strengthen America
America in general and Hawaii in particular need a new national service requirement in which every able-bodied young man and woman is required to commit one or two years of time to a cause larger than themselves.
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America in general and Hawaii in particular need a new national service requirement in which every able-bodied young man and woman is required to commit one or two years of time to a cause larger than themselves. We have had this before in the face of external threats. Today the threats are internal. We need citizens to have more skin in the game.
Why? Citizenship may appear to expand with every new law but ironically, it is shrinking. Everyone is focused on the cult of “Where’s mine!” Interconnectivity has many advantages but it also seems to increase political pessimism. Our sense of community is reduced to laws to be obeyed, votes to be harvested, and taxes to be paid.
Is there a cure? A new social contract with tangible expectations and opportunities could be a start. Having ourselves volunteered during a different era of American politics, we can see how those experiences shaped new disciplines and habits. Even though we come from different traditions, one military and the other civilian, it created a shared civic experience.
Here is a better example.
In 1939, a law passed by Congress and Franklin Roosevelt changed the temperament of America. It created what would soon become the Works Projects Administration, an ambitious service program that put millions of men and women to work to carry out projects that included the construction of parks, roads, bridges and buildings.
Many of those constructions endure today, but there were other, maybe even more important legacies: life-changing odysseys for young people; tangible work that got done with pride; and the direct involvement in what politicians now call “The American Dream.”
Congress also passed the Selective Training and Service Act, the first peacetime conscription in U.S. history. Selective Service required men between 21 and 35 to register with local draft boards and be ready for call-up. Two decades later the original architects of Kennedy’s Peace Corps program envisioned the same. A Peace Corps draft.
Today, we need an experience of direct citizenship to help counter the loss of faith in our institutions. Citizenship without meaningful participation makes us lazy. It becomes a constant assertion of “rights” devoid of “responsibilities.”
There is much that needs to be done. Our state and national infrastructures are in dire need of maintenance. Schools need additional teachers. Poorer communities could use assistance from young lawyers, MBAs and social workers. Parks and trails need to be fixed and start-up minority businesses and social service agencies need entrepreneurial help.
To stay healthy, we need fresh imagination and political willpower and a focus on “doing” rather than talking. There are plenty of options available: any branch of the military, Teacher Corps, Vista, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and YouthBuild. More can be invented.
Hawaii with its general civic apathy could especially benefit from programs that motivate 18- to 25-year-olds to do something for the community. We can also create “carrots” — college debt relief; post-volunteer career or college scholarships; hiring preferences; re-adjustment allowances after volunteered time.
The long-term payoff could be profound. “The best way to find yourself,” said Gandhi, “is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Much of this comes down to inspired and brave leaders who will insist on a service requirement and deliver up projects and programs that people can touch.
In the late 1960s, Victor Craft was an Air Force enlisted staff sergeant in Vietnam fixing aircraft that had been shot up, while Peter Adler was in India with the Peace Corps raising chickens, building schools and killing rats.