Time for compulsory universal service?

Posted: Dec 05, 2002 12:00 AM
"Of those to whom much is given, much is required." It's a familiar mantra. These days we hear it often from the highest quarters, as President Bush travels the country encouraging volunteer service as a road to fulfilling the founders' perceived destiny of making America "a beacon ... to the rest of the world." Yet, admirable as fostering a culture of volunteer service may be, the Bush initiative is inadequate to the problem it seeks to address. Of those to whom much is given, much is required. Note it well: REQUIRED. Once more, that's R-E-Q-U-I-R-E-D. The president properly trumpets core values, volunteer service (4,000 lifetime hours of service for every American), and the reinvigoration of the study of history and civics; his government will host a forum on them in February. He has created the USA Freedom Corps and expanded the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. (And lo, controversy has arisen over a proposed revision of the AmeriCorps pledge, with critics charging it is overly militaristic and religious - the latter because it concludes with "so help me God" - and never mind that it is practically identical to the pledge required of all federal employees.) He has promoted volunteer-service Web sites and a ZIP-code-based clearinghouse for service opportunities through groups such as the Points of Light Foundation, United Way and the Junior League. To wildly cheering crowds, as at Ohio State in June, he recalls John Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" - with words such as these: "You (graduates) will determine whether we become a culture of selfishness and look inward, or whether we will embrace a culture of service and look outward. ... Apathy has no adventure. Cynicism leaves no monuments. And a person who is not responsible for others is a person who is truly alone" Volunteerism always is nice and always is the right way to go, the first way to try. But in the present hour - (a) with the president admirably pitching the growth of good out of the evil inhering in 9/11, and (b) with the nation seemingly on the road to war - volunteerism obviously is not enough. Coupla things. Military recruitment is back struggling along at pre-9/11 levels. Military registration, for all men 18 to 25 (the 1980 law reinstating draft registration bans women from registering) lazes along as well, with fewer than 70 percent registering with Selective Service in the year they turn 18 - even with, oh, about three-minute online registration. The literature of sociology brims with worry about the growing ideological gap between the military and civilian sectors. Too many of our young grow uncivil, sullen and sour - with too many drunk on their materialistic selves, too many uncertain and confused about how to proceed into adulthood, too many utterly unconcerned about giving back anything to their country or culture. Ted Sorensen, the author of many of John Kennedy's most memorable words, put it this way 18 months ago: "Too many (young people) have lost their faith in democratic institutions and have turned cynical or apathetic about politics and public service. Too few of them seek civic responsibility or participation. Private employment offers more pay and less pain. Both the affluent and the underclass make their own material well-being their first priority. ... To every citizen, I can say from experience: For at least part of your life, part of the time, give something back to this country. Put service ahead of self. Try it. You'll like it." Too many are not trying it. Particularly, too many of the children of the affluent - children of the nation's doctors, lawyers, preachers, journalists, academics, tech boomers and investment bankers. "Of those to whom much is given, much is required." So why is it not time for compulsory universal service? Why is it not time to require one year of service for our young men and women? Front-load the year with eight weeks of basic military training, (a) to broaden public appreciation of the military and (b) to build a pool of available boot-camped recruits for times of crisis. Stipulate that choice one would be whether to do the year immediately after high school or upon departure from a four-year collegiate undergraduate program. Choice two would give every enrollee the option either to stay in the military (if the military had the need) or to move into an endless array of civilian giveback programs precisely like those now pushed by the president. Volunteer service isn't getting the numbers from the nation's young, among whom it is most needed. Compulsory universal service - one year with an eight-week military component, men and women, no exceptions except for physical or mental incapacity - would work miracles for this beleaguered nation's heart and soul. In this dark hour, President Bush and key politicians should lead the way. After all, "Of those to whom much is given, much is required."