Compulsory service for the young

Posted: Oct 02, 2001 12:00 AM
Some take profound offense at the very suggestion of anything good about the Sept. 11 introduction to the war we are in. So much enormity, death, mayhem and agony; so much forever changed. The sudden smell-the-coffee, hit-you-in-the-face realization that the planet has actual walking-around human beings who hate our ever livin' guts. But what about the welling up of oneness? The pouring forth of national pride? The compassion and kindness? The reaching out, the brotherhood, the flag? Civility, even polite New Yorkers, in what seemed an irredeemably uncivil age? Even television, unable to hype horror of this magnitude, rising for a while above itself. Even the immediate and nearly unanimous sentiment, even among the custodians of respectable opinion, for warring now before they do it again - particularly in the wake of President Bush's magnificent speech, ranking right up there with the greatest ones of modern history. Even Congress is uniting as rarely before. It's all enough to make one wish for the bottling of this new sense so it won't disappear. There is a way to help keep it around - a concept expressed here before but never with greater urgency, never at a more timely hour. The concept is compulsory national service for the young. All the young. Both genders - no excuses, no exemptions except for the extremely handicapped. One year - immediately following either high school or college. The first eight weeks would consist of basic military training. For the remaining 44 weeks, participants would choose to continue in the military or to help in a multiplicity of civilian community-service jobs (e.g., geriatric wards, mental hospitals, homeless centers - the list would be long and broad). As a nation, we know the importance of volunteer service. It is one of the loud cries for instilling in the young a sense of community and self-worth through helping others. Parents boast about their children's doings in such areas. Some high schools demand service; some (and some judges) stipulate it for infractions. Many high-school seniors seek to impress collegiate admissions officers with essays about how their volunteer-service experience showed them the other side of life and made them just the sorts of sensitive students smart-thinking colleges want. The past two weeks have been marked not only by anguish and fear, but also by a new and overwhelming sense of bonding and resolve. The aftermath of the recent attacks also may prove to have been most devastating to the young - the loss of innocence by the sudden intrusion of terror into their lives. It would be comforting to think that as a consequence the young would move beyond ego and volunteer to give back - even to sign up. Many may have, but most have not. And the initial numbers indicate no mammoth surge in military enlistment. Soon the youth scene may revert to sloppy bovine insolence and pathetic worries about the opposite sex, mind-benders, which screaming CD to buy, and which orifice to decorate with which muffler or drive shaft. The president reminded the nation that it stands at the edge of war - a critical cusp: terror or freedom, them or us. What better moment to enroll the young in the crusade to give back, to participate, to help out, to contribute? To gain a sense of other-oriented worth? And oh yes, to acquire an appreciation of the military through doing, and to ready themselves to fight should the country call? If Osama and company have changed everything forever, if Americans never will regain their stolen innocence, then why not help the nation's young grow up? A volunteer program won't cut it: Fine in theory, it inevitably would become the realm of the few. Compulsion probably is the only way. Compulsory service - one year, for every young person, beginning with an eight-week military component - quickly would become part of the culture. It would give a sense of community and purpose to the complacent young. It would salve the nation's soul. And it would build a renewed appreciation of the military, at the same time providing a manpower pool for crises caused by this or some other Osama. Will the nation sustain the national sentiment it shares a month from now - a year? Will we still be praying, still be flying the flag with such fervor? Compulsory service would do much to keep it all going and could prove one of the greatest goods to emerge from the 9/11 attacks. Call it the September Solution. If not now, when?