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.

Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton wants to create a national academy to train public servants, saying: “I’m going to be asking a new generation to serve. I think just like our military academies, we need to give a totally all-paid education to young men and women who will serve their country in a public service position.” She cites the nation’s military service academies as exemplars, but neglects to address either the military manpower shortage or the chasm between the nation’s civilian and military communities.

The nation does require young men turning 18 to register for the draft; the Selective Service System has 13.5 million on the books right now. Yet over the summer, so vast is the disconnect with the military, Selective Service bagged plans to test its draft machinery for the first time since 1998 — citing lack of money and staff.

Libertarians left and right object to compulsion, but service to one’s country may be a special case. Voluntary programs don’t have a high yield. Isn’t the time at hand for a compulsory service program, one or two years — with a front-end military component followed by enrollment in any on an endless list of civilian service entities — for all men and women 18-23? Why hasn’t a Republican picked up the fumbled ball and run it into the end zone?

Donald Horner, a leadership professor at the Naval Academy, had this to say in a Sept. 28 piece in the Baltimore Sun:

“The war is background noise. . . . We follow this war about as much as we pay attention to the daily operations of the Department of Agriculture.” Though he doubts it will happen, Horner favors a draft — to close the great divide “between Americans and their military.” A draft, he says, “could be designed to equally distribute service requirements among the rich, the middle class, and the poor.” Not only would it spread the burden. It also would heighten awareness “that we really are a nation at war.”

Compulsory universal service as outlined here would accomplish those things — and more — far better than a draft. It would help undo rampant selfishness and meism. And it would institutionalize service, both military and civilian, as central to the wellness of the country’s soul — conforming with Theodore Roosevelt’s admonition: “The first requisite of a good citizen in this republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his weight.”

So (because pure volunteerism demonstrably isn’t cutting it) mandatory volunteerism. Compulsory (that is, no exceptions) universal service, with a front-end military component. Required give-back and pulling of one’s weight to keep America the land of the free.

What a concept.

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.

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