National Service: A Perennial Bad Idea



Well, the Washington Post has run a piece that brings up yet again an idea that is completely against what this country stands for, but is raised again year after year:  National Service:

On a clear summer evening, we squinted into the sun setting over the softball field on our U.S. Army base in Germany. One of my friends, who hailed from a small Pennsylvania town, said: “Look out there, Will, and tell me that isn’t cool. There’s a good ole boy from West Virginia pitching; in center field, we have a black power-lifter from Florida; in right field, there’s a Puerto Rican; at first base, an Irish-American from South Boston. I went to West Point, and you went to Princeton. If we were back home, what would be the chances that all of our paths would ever cross?”

I was reminded of that moment the other night as my wife and I watched the final scene of “Band of Brothers,” in which the soldiers play softball as the narrator explains what became of them after the war. After a few moments sitting in stunned silence as the credits rolled, in awe of the almost unimaginable self-sacrifice of Dick Winters and the men of Easy Company, “Band of Brothers” gave way to a cable news show and its cacophony of pundits shouting party-issued talking points at each other, without a trace of original thought. It was hard to avoid a sense of melancholy at the abrupt transition from Easy Company’s selfless service to today’s toxic political discourse, and to a social fabric that appears to be unraveling along partisan and socioeconomic lines.

How has the country for which our grandparents sacrificed so much come to this?

Yes, we have serious issues, but we are not confronted with an imminent existential threat. We are not experiencing anything as ruinous as the Civil War or either of our world wars. So why this sense that the ties that bind our country together are fraying while we furiously pull in opposite directions?

One powerful step that could begin moving us toward a sense of shared destiny would be a period of national service, either military or civil. The question over whether it should be mandatory, or merely incentivized and encouraged, as the bipartisan Franklin Project is working toward, can be debated. However, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal writes, the “need to create a culture of service where we are all invested in our nation’s future and feel a shared sense of responsibility to our nation and to each other” should not require extensive deliberation.

Go here to read the rest.  I am rerunning a post about the draft today, go here to read it.  Suffice it to say that except for World War II the draft has always been of dubious military utility.  Conscripting people  for several years of their life, to perform services they do not wish to perform, is slavery by another name.  If national survival is at stake then you do what you have to do.  However, we have long since left the era of mass militaries.  Our high tech forces receive all the voluntary high quality recruits they need, and it is difficult to envision a time when we will need a military of sixteen million again, as was the case in World War II.  Of course, much of that manpower was wasted even then, with two-thirds of that sixteen million never leaving the United States, and often involved in tasks in the country of less utility to the war effort than if they had been involved in helping to man factories producing war material.

The idea of non-military National Service raises its own problems, especially with politicians using the conscripted workers to supplement pork barrel projects.  The idea also that completely untrained conscripts would be of much utility in, say, constructing buildings or roads, takes us back to the make work projects of the New Deal, where at least the laborers were voluntary participants.  I could see however why some politicians might like the idea of conscripting young people, engaging in political indoctrination with them, and then sending them back to communities as “community organizers”.  (The saving grace of course would be that the government would probably bungle the task.)

Leave the idea of National Service to 1940s nostalgia and contemporary police state reality, and let Americans enjoy the freedom which is their birthright.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. I’ll go a step further:
    the mandatory “volunteer” hours required for graduating high school need to be stopped.

    Even when I graduated there was more abuse than the supposed good use– it was just AMAZING how giving free labor to certain businesses counted, while I had to fight like a dog to get my time at the library to count. And there weren’t any opportunities at the school itself. You had to be in the Alternative School to be able to apply a work permit instead. (that’s also where you had to be to GET a work permit)

  2. Do the people who support National Service also support good old fashioned civics in school, where kids learn about what the Declaration of Independence means?
    If not then they just want an opportunity to brainwash our kids.

  3. We heard Gen. Stanley McChrystal speak- seems like a great guy and very thoughtful. The “need to create a culture of service where we are all invested in our nation’s future and feel a shared sense of responsibility to our nation and to each other” is not a bad idea- talking about either civil or military service.

    Is your concern that that culture of service would be required and not freely given?
    Education at home or at school is a method of “creating a culture” without applying requirement or duty. But that has already been so co-opted! Parents and catechism teachers are put in the ring with the heavy weight champion gorilla known as Mass Culture and have a very hard time getting through.
    People are educated away from patriotic love or loyalty and encouraged in self seeking and easy gratification. The parents and teachers themselves have divided loyalties between the truth of the Faith and the surrounding culture. How to inspire and encourage a culture of service then..,
    I think this also relates to the terrible question of why we are faced with the choice of Trump or Clinton! This great Country of ours can’t cough of any better leaders than that! Perhaps many good people stay out of politics because of the great sacrifice that is required. Perhaps they stay out because we are so suspicious of good people who want to do public service– We had 16 other candidates on the Republican stage.

  4. That’s a bit like trying to encourage generosity by authorizing a group of unknown people to empty someone’s bank account….
    A sense of duty is encouraged by being a part of something; please, tell me how the guys drafted during Vietnam had their sense of duty encouraged, and put into bloom– the only folks I know who aren’t quite pissy decades later started out with an extremely strong sense of duty in the first place. (That would be my dad. Heck, one of my uncles was a volunteer and he’s still pissy, though that may have been a natural personality issue.)
    Besides that, college age is far too late, building a sense of duty requires that the other side of the deal treat it like it is worthwhile, and it will just make it even harder to form families– all the downsides of college, now without even the effort of applying or just not showing up!

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