Ugh. Just say no to (mandatory) national service

Ugh. Just say no to (mandatory) national service October 17, 2019
Texas National Guardsmen assist residents into a military vehicle during Hurricane Harvey flooding in Houston, Texas, Aug. 27, 2017. Army National Guard photo by Lt. Zachary West;

So there’s a new report out at the Brookings Institute promoting “national service” and this concept really irks me to no end, so I wanted to spend a little bit of time griping about the concept, in general, and this particular report, specifically.

Advocates of national service promote the idea as a sort of 21st-century equivalent of the draft.  In the idealized world (and as politicians like Buttigieg continue to idealize it), men (and women, now) who spend time in the military learn not just patriotism and civic duty but how to work together with people from all walks of life, of all races and creeds and education levels (though, let’s face it, the military has its own divides, namely, the divide between officers and enlisted men, and Pete Buttigieg’s service was as an officer).  And since we don’t need or want a large military, the way to ensure that all young adults get this proper degree of inculcation in civic virtue is by mandating a nonmilitary equivalent (or creating a semi-mandatory version in which everyone participates because it is desirable or because there’s a stigma to declining to do so).

What’s more, advocates point to the draft, which Americans see as acceptable in extreme cases here, and recognize as a normal path elsewhere, to demonstrate that there’s nothing wrong per se with mandating national civilian service, that it isn’t “involuntary servitude” or a violation of the constitution or fundamental human rights.  The paper even includes an appendix listing all country’s military service requirements.  But that’s missing the point.  Take Germany:  they had had mandatory military service of two years throughout the Cold War, dropping down to 18 months as tensions eased, then down to 15 months, and eventually being eliminated entirely in 2011 (my husband, who was in the midst of his military service when the Wall came down, thought at the time he was fortunate to be required to serve only 18 months, until those who followed him needed three months less).  And it is true that they had a parallel track of civilian service — but these positions were established only as an alternative for conscientious objectors, not as an institution of their own.

In fact, the closest we have to a norm of a “service year” is the Mormon tradition of serving missions.  At the same time, we do have strong traditions of community service as a life-long endeavor that we would do well to rebuild.  And as for teens/young adults learning to interact with people outside their social class, that had long been provided, for middle-class kids, via summer/afterschool jobs in which they worked alongside blue-collar folk for whom this was their full-time occupation.

But is “learning civic virtue” a substantial enough objective to warrant young adults spending a year engaging in compulsory manual labor away from home?  And would such activities as weatherizing poor folks’ homes bring about this transformation – or would there be evening struggle sessions aimed at producing the desired effects if a day’s work on a labor crew didn’t?

And I’m also skeptical of those who do the math about the cost-benefit analysis of such a proposal merely in terms of the question of how much the government would have to spend compensating these young adults, either at wages sufficient to meet their living expenses or with additional perks that might not be reported in a scoring of costs but are real, and possibly quite substantial, anyway, such as college tuition and living expense benefits.  It is already the case that young adults are taking much longer to get launched into adult life — into careers, marriage, family formation.  Why would we add a further year or more?  Yes, in some cases, young adults benefit from a “gap year” before college, because they need additional time to mature, to be ready to start their college years with a better sense of direction and purpose than if they’d just proceeded there from high school with no objective other than “this is what you do next.”  But other students are already purpose-filled.  Wouldn’t students be harmed if they had been aiming for technical fields, who had been taking math and science classes in high school and are ready to move on to the next class in the progression, but must now take a year away and re-learn material upon returning?  (And that’s not just top students – I would assume that a kid on a track towards certification in something like automotive technology or welding or whatever could be impacted, too.)  And even beyond this reintegration-into-schooling difficulty, for any such student who didn’t need a gap year, you’ve added a year onto their trajectory into full adult living at exactly a time when this is happening in too delayed a fashion as it is.

Finally, the fact that this is all under discussion for young adults, not for older adults, is an indicator that we think of these people’s lives as ours to control.  Why would we mandate service for a 20 year old, but not a 65 year old?  Why not say, in order to collect Social Security, you must serve your nation?

Of course, it’s preposterous.  No one would suggest it – even though most such 65 year olds are empty-nesters, so they have no family responsibilities nor would they be delayed in establishing careers and families because they have already done so. But why would we then think that young adults’ lives are at our disposition?

Vent over.

Time to look at the Brookings report itself.

The report is organized into sections, and the first of these attempts to make the case for national service as a concept, before discussing polling, costs/benefits, constitutionality, etc.

Their rationale for national service begins with the Depression, and the Civilian Conservation Corps and the subsequent “national service” of men drafted into World War 2 and the women working on the home front.

In the unprecedented prosperity that followed the war, the Greatest Generation served more, joined organizations more, gave more in charitable contributions, attended church, school, and community activities more, and were active neighbors helping those in need more than the generations preceding or following them.

During those same post-war years in which our civic stocks rose, Americans voted more, entered public service in greater numbers, and enjoyed much lower levels of political polarization than we see now. National service was also understood as a way to express gratitude for a country that preserves our freedom.

I’m sorry, but I’m skeptical that it’s possible to recreate this level of civic involvement by keeping everything else about 2019 America unchanged and merely adding “universal service” into the mix.

And the report further observes that our social fabric has frayed.  But rather than repairing those civic groups, religious congregations, and the like, the authors appear to imagine that national service can fix this.  The report cites low numbers of available slots for the Peace Corps, and large numbers of young people being turned away (but ignores the fact that, so far as I understand, in order to provide meaningful benefits to the people the program is meant to serve, it requires Peace Corps participants to have some real, usable skills).

The report also claims thatr

With limited opportunities for full-time service, the rising generation seeks additional outlets for its patriotism or desire to give back, but is perennially stymied. For example, one survey estimated that, if asked and promised only minimal pay, more than a million Americans would serve each year.

The footnote to this claim did not provide sufficient detail to identify the source and see how the question was phrased or how their estimate was calculated.  The closer this is phrased as the equivalent of a government jobs guarantee, vs. a civilian equivalent of military life (which the CCC was, in many ways, living in barracks and with the same sort of discipline expectations), the more I’d expect people to respond favorably.

The report then discusses polling, but without discussing results of actual polls, so much as their limitations and the need for “state of the art” surveys — but curiously, lists “specific services that federally-sponsored national service programs might address more and better if they had more workers and better funding”:

Assisting military families and veterans in adjusting back into civilian life;

• Mentoring/tutoring students in low-performing schools to keep them on track;

• Helping communities prepare for and respond to emergencies and disasters;

• Cleaning up rivers, parks, blighted public areas, and coasts;

• Helping older Americans remain in their homes;

• Providing job training and career advice to low-income Americans;

• Incentivizing nonprofits, colleges, universities, and faith-based institutions to join a national service system by offering positions for Americans to serve for a year through their respective organizations;

• Amending the GI Bill to permit veterans to use a portion of their GI Benefits to support their performing a full year of civilian national service; and

• Amending the current Selective Service System so that every American receives information not only about opportunities to serve in the military but also in a civilian national service capacity.

Which is a curious sort of list as it appears to include both activities that nation-servers would be doing as well as benefits they would receive (and other actions that fit into neither category which makes this a catch-all list and which I’m including to avoid cherry-picking).

Are nation-servers expected to be the ones “providing job training” or are they, as young adults, intended to be the recipient of job training and career advice through a national service program which has as its real goal helping aimless youth?  Would nation-servers be “assisting military families” or would a period of national service function as reintegration?  Yes, I suppose you could have a new set of workers for clean-up of public/natural areas but I doubt someone who has signed on for or been drafted into a year of national service is going to be your best choice as a mentor and tutor and I am not particularly clear on how they can “help older Americans remain in their homes” — by installing ramps or other remodeling work to make a home wheelchair accessible?  By providing eldercare?

The report then starts to lose me as it starts to get philosophical and says that a universal quasi-mandatory service requirement would be a natural evolution of the Selective Service system:

In conclusion, one the one hand, it takes no leap of imagination to envision the next chapters in the history of the U.S. Selective Service System, and the next innovations and amendments to System’s present administrative structure, mirroring the “21st Century National Service System” articulated in 2013 by the Franklin Project. But, on the other hand, this new system, and any mandatory service components, would have no twins and few close cousins around the globe. It would, however, reflect the American civic tradition, starting with the unprecedented and wholly novel creation of a government based on “reflection and choice” that is “neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both.”

In the end, the more I read, the less persuaded I was.  The very notion that every young adult should go through a formal program intended to inculcate desired civic virtues, however noble it may be intended, is a step too far for me, especially insofar as it intentionally seeks to replace the virtue cultivation of religion and other civic groups.

And I’ll end, as usual, with the invitation for readers to share their thoughts on the issue.

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