In Praise of National Service

Recruitment poster by Howard Chandler Christy, 1917 (Museum of Modern Art)

Alarming statistics are increasingly published suggesting that our nation is in danger of creating a military class in this country, if we have not already created one.

“The Iraq and Afghan campaigns represent the first protracted, large-scale conflicts since our Revolutionary War fought entirely by volunteers,” Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said in a speech at Duke University in September, 2010. “Indeed, no major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country’s citizens in uniform full-time, roughly 2.4 million active and reserve service members out of a country of over 300 million, less than one percent.”

The grim prospects for democratic societies that reject broader public participation in the institutions of national service are rich in historical precedent. In her monumental post-war work The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt examined the impact of the Dreyfus affair on the French Republic. Alfred Dreyfus, a captain of the French General Staff was privately tried and convicted of espionage for Germany in 1894. Sentenced to life imprisonment on the infamous Devil’s Island penal colony, Dreyfus was eventually cleared of the charge. But the Dreyfus affair exposed the corrosive element of an insular military class within the French republic and aggravated the destructive tensions between loyal republicans, such as Albert Clemenceau and Emile Zola, and its conservative aristocratic elite.

“In contrast to the shifting and fluid cliques of society and Parliament,” Arendt wrote, “where admission was easy and allegiance fickle, stood the rigorous exclusiveness of the army, so characteristic of the caste system. It was neither military life, professional honor, nor esprit de corps that held its officers together to form a reactionary bulwark against the republic and against all democratic influences; it was simply the tie of caste. The refusal of the state to democratize the army and to subject it to the civil authorities entailed remarkable consequences. It made the army an entity outside of the nation and created an armed power whose loyalties could be turned in directions which none could foretell.”

When we consider that only about 1% of American households have been directly affected by US military combat commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere over the past two decades, it becomes difficult to accept the possibility that American foreign policy is or even can be conducted in any genuinely democratic sense. As anti-government rhetoric reaches new levels of acceptance in our national discourse, it becomes increasingly vital to respond with appreciation for national service as an investment in the broader public interest.

In the broadest terms of our national discourse, the idea of something like compulsory national service compels us to put our ideology where our mouth is. Either liberals genuinely believe that a popular government has a legitimate role to serve the public interest or it does not. Conversely, either conservatives genuinely honor and take upon themselves the service to their country they profess to love or they do not.

Who regulates the “well regulated Militia” of the second amendment? Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power “To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.” We do not make laws to legislate morality. We do it sustain societies and modify behaviors of individual citizens. The mass shootings that occurred in Parkland, Sandy Hook, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Columbine, etc. are the bloody symptoms of a dysfunctional society.

Our vital national discourse has produced noxious clichés like “taxes are tyranny” and “an armed society is a polite society.” Meanwhile, all our guns have failed to prevent the privatization of our public services, the greatest wealth gap in our society in over a century and the massive theft of our treasury by the financialization of our entire economy. Given all the actual carnage, the III%, the Oath Keepers and other self-proclaimed freedom fighters of our time cannot even police themselves, let alone their imaginary Deep States, Chicoms and MS13 gangbangers.

Nearly twenty years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed a comparatively and alarmingly insular subculture within a vital segment of American national society.

Iraq War Marine Veteran Brett Friedman on the weblog Marine Corps Gazette wrote about the erosion of discipline and leadership in the Corps, citing examples of the hazing death of Lance Corporal Harry Lew and the display of a Nazi SS flag by a Marine Corps scout sniper unit. “We have fostered a culture that takes perverse pleasure in enforcing irrelevant standards while simultaneously ignoring or enabling true misconduct. We’ve fostered a generation of Marines who will look at the picture of the scout snipers and see facial hair, unbloused boots, and hands in pockets before they notice Nazi propaganda. They will quickly condemn failures in appearance but will enable and defend moral failings. They will ignore and allow a Lance Corporal to be hazed and ostracized. They will join in with the desecration of bodies. These are our priorities. But at least the grass around the battalion CP will remain undisturbed by feet clad in identical socks,” Friedman concluded. “Fix it.”

AmeriCorps Week is still a thing, as every year in March since the program’s implementation in 1994. As American military commitments remain in Iraq and Afghanistan and if the renewal of civic engagement is sustained out of these tense years, then the time may be ripe to discuss the wisdom and manner of reinstituting compulsory national service — including non-military options.

National service has a strong potential advocate with the nomination of former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet as Transportation Secretary. During the primaries, Buttigieg committed his presidential campaign to a promise of up to a million service opportunities to high school graduates by 2026, arguing that current acceptance rates for established national service groups are languishing at 13 percent for AmeriCorps and 25 percent for the Peace Corps. Even the military only accepts about 20 percent of would-be recruits. On the campaign trail, Buttigieg emphasized how his time served with the Navy in Afghanistan has been a “life-changing experience” for working alongside diverse groups of people and called for expanding initial service recruitment opportunities through AmeriCorps and additional fellowships to the tune of a quarter million, up from the current 75,000. The goal, he said was to create “a pathway towards a universal, national expectation of service for all 4 million high school graduates every year.”

As the incoming Biden Administration seeks to “Build Back Better” an economy wrecked by a morbidly mismanaged pandemic response on top of a Republican policy priority of supply-side voodoo economics, an opportunity for even larger investments in national service should appear easy to demand. We may even begin the discussion by considering how much more difficult it may have been to sell the American people on the 2003 invasion of Iraq if the nation’s electorate had been more invested in our armed forces.

Further, we may even look forward to the Veterans Day when we can all celebrate each other.

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