Draft might breathe new life into a listless U.S.

May 21, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Last Sunday's column on mandatory public service -- civil, military and foreign humanitarian -- for all U.S. citizens resulted in a plump stack of e-mails and numerous phone calls, and the reaction was passionately divided. The readers I heard from either love the idea and think it's long overdue or reject it as forced labor.

The latter view -- extreme libertarian -- holds that it's unconstitutional to force Americans to do anything at any time, including pay taxes or wear desert camo, so there's not much room for argument.

But for those who support national public service -- or those intrigued enough to at least engage the idea -- I'll go back to the premise: The current lack of a draft has placed the burden for fighting America's wars on an all-volunteer military and allows most Americans to get by without offering hardly anything in the way of personal sacrifice for the greater good.

There's another consequence: diminished vigilance of a people who are neither personally invested in nor affected by the military decisions of our leaders.

A draft would wake everyone up.

It would also transform a citizenry that, in the post-baby boom period, has become increasingly myopic, wealth-obsessed, self-centered, cynical and clueless to essential concepts of loyalty and teamwork, community and commitment. We think our kids are getting this through community service hours in high school. But that's a limited lesson, easily overwhelmed by the me-first think that marks the adolescent society of 21st-century America.

What I advocate -- a two-year public service commitment for all Americans once they reach the age of 18, with deferment optional until the age of 21, when service becomes mandatory -- goes beyond military needs.

A National Public Service Administration would stage a daily national drawing to decide what path each citizen takes -- military, domestic or foreign humanitarian.

Military duty would be as it is now, but all branches would be served in some way by the draft.

A domestic assignment would take a draftee anywhere in the United States, from urban public schools to rural public works project.

Foreign-service assignments would take draftees where they're needed and -- I'll add this, at the behest of one reader -- likely to feel appreciated.

National Public Service would eventually create a new kind of American or, depending on your historic view, take us back to a time (the Depression, World War II) in which nearly every citizen had his or her hands on the ropes of the great ship.

For a few years in the lives of each man or woman, the common good becomes their focus -- serving the nation's defense, improving society from within, spreading good will around the world -- and they would take lessons learned from this experience into the rest of their lives. Public service gives us an engaged, active and vigilant citizenry with an informed world view, and it broadens the definition of patriotism.

I have been thinking about this for a long time, and more so in the last year. But it wasn't just the war in Iraq that forced the issue. It was the quality of the nation's response to Katrina.

And it's the state of our culture.

There is a real disconnect, more than ever, between the citizenry and the national government, and even our understanding of citizenship seems to have become murky. We're just not as vigilant as we should be. And we are cynical about politics -- a common malady that runs parallel with a lousy feeling that there are too many large, sinister forces working against the common good to make progressive action worthwhile.

A reader who responded to last Sunday's column said it was not the duty of young men and women to save the world. What young people need to do, this e-mailer wrote, was get educated and generate wealth. I say: There's time for all that. Do some public service for your nation first. Feel part of something bigger than yourself. See more of the country, more of the world.

Of course, there's a practical side to all of this. We'd get some work done. We'd get some roads fixed, some classrooms staffed, some streams cleaned and protected. We could extend the reach of AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps.

Young men and women who step out of high school or college with no direction -- or even a notion of one -- could find themselves in National Public Service.

A kid who has known nothing but comfort in his life, coddled by affluent parents, would get a jolt of reality and learn the life lessons he missed while playing video games. We might no longer have a generation of 20-some- things in protracted adolescence.

A kid from, say, a drug-infested neighborhood might like planting trees in the national forests, or serving in a support role for troops guarding the Mexican border, or helping to build a schoolhouse in an impoverished country. He might see a horizon he didn't even know was there, and return to his hometown better prepared to be a productive citizen. His at-risk years, primarily 18 to 21, would have been spent away from the influences that send many young men that age to prison or the morgue.

In National Public Service, we might even imagine a new embrace of idealism, which is what the country sorely lacks. The limited supply we have on hand gets used in various high school and college commencement addresses, then disappears the next day. Here's a way of capturing it and getting it back in the American blood.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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