In the early 1940s, when the forces of fascism in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan threatened to take over the world, the American people rolled up their sleeves and went to work.
It was, in the words of General Dwight Eisenhower, a “Great Crusade”. Millions of brave American soldiers fought their way across North Africa, Western Europe, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The sailors of the U.S. Navy secured the sea lanes from German U-boats in the Atlantic and won epic battles against the Japanese in the Pacific. The pilots in their fighters and bombers supported their comrades in the other services and shattered the war production of our adversaries through strategic bombing.
Yet you did not have to put on a uniform to take part in America’s war effort. On the assembly lines of countless factories, tens of millions of workers (more than a quarter of them women) toiled to produce the war material that would bring victory. Sailors of the merchant marine manned the vessels, sailing across dangerous waters to carry the supplies to the war zones that made the military campaigns possible (more than nine thousand of them lost their lives). Men not eligible for military service took part in civil defense efforts, enforcing blackouts, guarding bridges, and keeping an eye out for spies and saboteurs. Even schoolchildren did their part, growing fresh vegetables in “victory gardens” at their schools and collecting rubber from tires, aluminum from bubblegum wrappers, and anything else that could help the war effort.
In many ways, World War II brought out the best in our nation. Everyone, from all races, religions, and backgrounds, felt a responsibility to contribute to the war effort in whatever way they could. We did not fully free ourselves of our internal tensions and contradictions, as was shown by our shameful internment of Japanese-Americans and some serious incidents of racial tension in 1943. Yet, all things considered, there was a sense of national unity and common purpose between 1941 and 1945 unlike any other time in our nation’s history. Not for nothing was it called the Greatest Generation.
Our own time could not be more different. We see ourselves in our time, first and foremost, as members of distinct racial, religious, or cultural groups (“tribes”, to use a term currently in vogue among sociologists) rather than as fellow Americans. A liberal from San Francisco feels that he has nothing in common with a conservative from a rural Oklahoma town, and vice versa. The ties that used to bind us have weakened, steadily chopped away by the resentments and prejudices, real or imagined, that are pulling us apart. This process has been accelerated by the rise of social media and by populist demagogues acting in their own self-interest, instinctively but expertly exploiting our divisions by appealing to fear, anger, and envy.
When I look at the myriad of problems facing America in our own time, it seems clear to me that one of the root causes is the lack of a common American identity. If we are to recover, we need to recapture the spirit of the Greatest Generation, adapting it for modern times. We need to solidify a sense that, though we may have different religions, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, though we may speak different languages, though we may have different political beliefs, we are all Americans and we are all part of the same grand experiment in democracy. Like Washington and his men crossing the Delaware River, we are all in the same boat.
I believe that a comprehensive program of national service, in which young Americans would be expected to devote at least a year of their lives, would be the most effective means of rebuilding a common American identity among our people.
I don’t propose in this blog post to lay out all the specifics of such a plan, which would obviously require enormous debate and consideration before it became a reality. Generally speaking, though, I believe that an additional type of educational certificate should be created in the United States, between a high school diploma and a college degree, which one could obtain only by doing a year of national service. In effect, this would add an additional year onto our system of public education, but it would be a year in which our young people would be out in the world rather than behind the desks of their classrooms. Nobody would be required to do this, but young Americans who had earned a national service certificate would naturally have an advantage over those who had not in terms of employment and college acceptance. The federal government could require federal agencies, as well as any companies with federal contracts, to give preference to holders of such certificates in their hiring practices. Tax breaks and tuition incentives could also potentially be included for those who participate. Self-interest, as well as a simple desire to serve, would draw people into the program.
The idea of national service is nothing new. In the colonial era, all able-bodied men in a community were expected to serve in the militia. Mandatory military service was a fact of life for American men in every major 20th Century conflict, until the draft was abolished in the wake of the Vietnam War. In the midst of the Great Depression, millions of young men participated the New Deal program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), building and improving parks and doing other jobs on government-owned land. President Kennedy introduced the Peace Corps in 1961 and President Clinton launched AmeriCorps in 1993. Fundamentally, Americans are decent people with a strong desire to serve their nation.
In a new program of national service, young Americans should be able to fulfill their requirements through a variety of means. Military service is the most obvious route; even if they did not want to join the military, they could take part in a year-long period of military training and enter the National Guard or the Reserves. Enrollment in already established programs, like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, would also qualify, as would participation in service-oriented, apolitical nonprofit organizations that meet certain requirements. Internship programs for professions such as teaching, law enforcement, firefighting, and emergency medical services would also fit into this vision. Even construction work on critical infrastructure such as highways and bridges, and work in National Parks and local and state parks, might be included. The possibilities are almost limitless.
Enrolling millions of young people into such a program would, of course, be a tremendous undertaking and cost a good deal of money. But the return on investment for something like this would be astronomical. We are constantly told of an overstretched military, of shortages of teachers and police officers and emergency responders, of a crumbling infrastructure, and the desperate need of volunteers for our nonprofit sector. So much work that desperately needs to be done would, under this program, finally get done. Indeed, if we launched a genuine program of national service, our biggest problem would probably be finding enough spots for everyone. If you ask me, that’s not a bad problem to have.
The larger, more abstract benefits to America are impossible to calculate. Generations of young people would gain useful hands-on experience in a variety of different fields, which might also light the spark that will push them towards their destined careers. During their service year, Americans would meet fellow citizens from around the country, people very different from those with whom they grew up. This would build social tolerance for people of different ethnicities, religions, and social and political perspectives, helping to foster a more cohesive country and rebuild the common American identity that gave the Greatest Generation its amazing strength and fortitude. Research shows that citizens who have engaged in national service vote at a higher rate and are more deeply engaged in various forms of civic activism than those who did not. I believe a program like this would go a long way to burying the partisan divide that is currently poisoning political discourse in our great republic.
A program of comprehensive national service like this would have to be organized and funded by the federal government, because every young American would have to have an equal opportunity to participate regardless of their socioeconomic status. Many would argue that students would dismiss such a program as a waste of time. I disagree. Having spent years working in high school and middle school classrooms, I am convinced that the vast majority of young Americans would not only be willing but would be genuinely eager to participate in a program such as this. They would understand the benefits they would gain, they would see it as a chance for adventure, and they would jump at the opportunity to serve their country. It would be of particular benefit to those young Americans who might otherwise fall into addictive drug use and gang culture.
In recent years, some members of Congress have proposed legislation to enact some form of national service, though these efforts have been overwhelmingly defeated or ignored. Retired general Stanley McChrystal, formerly the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, has launched an effort to promote national service, though it has yet to gain much traction.
It is high time that this trend be reversed. The voice of the people should begin loudly calling for a program of comprehensive national service.
(This essay was originally published on the blog of Unite America.)