French President Emmanuel Macron this year reintroduced national service, also known as conscription, to France in order to “foster patriotism and heal social divisions.”
At a time when our nation is the most hyperpolarized it has ever been, when our young generation increasingly questions the very worth of America itself, and our country, particularly new generations is at the worst health in history, it is time to consider whether we should implement national service ourselves.
National service is in common use currently across democratic nations in the world as a form of civic duty amidst the freedom one is provided, just like paying taxes. It usually takes the form of mandatory military, or civilian service for objectors or those who choose, for all adults upon reaching the age of 18.
Conscripts are usually paid some form of nominal salary and are required to serve usually between six months to two years. Some nations have it only for men while others have it for both men and women.
Israel’s IDF is perhaps the most widely known conscription force, requiring all citizens, male and female, to serve in the military with very few exemptions. Conscription was common to the nations of Western Europe during the Cold War for obvious reasons, but still remained for many years afterwards until it was usually phased it out during the 2000’s.
Amidst the current time of great social turmoil in Europe, it appears many governments have realized a nostalgia for the widespread benefits of universal service. Beyond France, Sweden recently reintroduced mandatory military service for the first time in about a decade. In Finland, now over 80% of young men perform service. Norway in 2016 expanded its conscription to include women.
Clearly conscription is on the return for a variety of reasons.
In the United States, the idea of national service is as old as our nation itself. In the Revolutionary era, national service existed in quasi-form as part of general citizen participation in the various state and local militias. It was a point of debate among the Founding Fathers, split between those who favored a professional standing army versus general universal service.
Over the centuries national service has gone from its militia form to a variety of permutations, perhaps most notably the wartime draft first officially enacted by the federal government during the U.S. Civil War.
It was instituted again during World War I, raising an army of millions. In 1940, just before U.S. entry into World War II, over 71% of the population polled wanted immediate national military service, resulting in a peacetime draft that would soon be utilized for active service after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The peacetime draft would continue afterwards into the 1950’s, utilized during Korea and our numerous Cold War bases around the world, as well as during the Vietnam War when public dissatisfaction finally saw its end in 1973.
The call for national service has also materialized in numerous civilian programs, such as the Public Works Administration of the 1930’s, as well as the still-existing Peace Corps and the Corporation for National Service’s AmeriCorps.
The Selective Service, which requires all men to register for potential conscription upon reaching age 18 and be ready until age 25, remains in place since its use during World War I’s draft. In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called for women to also be included in Selective Service registration and the United States Senate passed a bill supporting such as well.
Theoretically, the Selective Service system could even now be potentially activated for conscription, although it likely would be better for our country to go through a more thorough deliberative process, with pilot programs, studies, and a national discussion.
National service has always remained present in our national discourse since, with the Universal National Service Act, among other variations, regularly being proposed throughout the years in Congress and the idea seeing occasional bipartisan calls for enactment.
It should be very much apparent why national service in the United States could solve much of our current social problems. Military service promotes discipline, grit, determination and teamwork. It gives life skills and supports physical fitness, both at the time and afterwards. It introduces people to those from all walks of life, as the U.S. proudly remains one of the world’s most diverse organization.
Furthermore, our nation is experiencing an increasing gap between civilians and service-members with a slew of negative externalities and that seems difficult to solve. According to Pew Research, in 1980 veterans accounted for 18% of U.S. adults. In 2016 it was 7% and declining.
National service sounds daunting, but our country is at a difficult point right now. It seems it’s at least an idea worth considering and exploring by our policymakers and discussing among our citizenry.