Ross Mackenzie

With the candidates oiling up for the primaries, an opportunity is at hand for serious debate about universal service.

It’s the notion that in some capacity everybody should serve the nation — each doing his share in give-back service, civilian or military. Service lies at the root of philanthropy and volunteerism throughout our adult lives. It is deemed so important that churches instill it in our young and some high schools require it — enabling the college-bound to pad their applications with testimonials about their commitment to helping others.

And of course the ultimate give-back is service in the nation’s armed forces. Yet even in time of war (aren’t we at war against global terror?), less than 1 percent of the American population is on active duty or in the Reserves or National Guard. By most accounts, our all-volunteer military boasts too few volunteers. We address this undermanning by contracting out many of our crucial military tasks — with for instance 180,000 contractors in Iraq, more than our 169,000 troops at the peak of the Petraeus “surge.”

In the wake of 9/11, President Bush missed perhaps the ripest opportunity ever to galvanize the nation’s young adults by rallying them to the service ramparts. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said we could fight the jihadists with minimal forces. He fired Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki for suggesting that securing Iraq would require 400,000 ground troops. So rather than issuing a call to service, President Bush told Americans to go on and live their lives as before — and they did.

Since John Kennedy formulated the Peace Corps, most presidents have tried to make it better and broader; some have proposed — or actually instituted — domestic service rather than service solely abroad. Yet for the most part, as on the campaign trail now, national service has become largely a Democratic — as opposed to Republican — cry.

Democratic Sen. Thomas Dodd, according to a wire-service report, “is issuing a call for community service that aims to create the first generation in which everyone serves their country.” How? By “making community service mandatory for all high-school students, doubling the size of the Peace Corps by 2011, and expanding the AmeriCorps national service program to 1 million participants by the end of his presidency.” That’s mandatory volunteerism. What’s lacking? A military component.

Ross Mackenzie

Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.

Be the first to read Ross Mackenzie's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.