Love of country: US ready for mandatory national service?
When Xavier Jennings was a teenager, money was tight for his single mother, who had five children, and he felt a duty to help out. He applied for jobs at Walmart and McDonald’s, but struggled to be what he calls in hindsight “interview ready.” He started stealing food from a supermarket, and escalated to selling marijuana on the street.
Still, he liked his high school classes and wanted to graduate, even as evictions and spates of homelessness for his family meant switching schools six times in four years. He was devastated when he fell short of credits. “My idea of success was attached to finishing my education.” He felt, he says, like a failure.
Mr. Jennings drifted further toward drug sales, but his older brother pulled him back when he saw him hanging out with the wrong crowd. “He told people he knew [in gangs] to stay away from me,” Mr. Jennings says. “I owe a lot to him – he really saw goodness in me.”
To redirect him, his brother eventually took him to Mile High Youth Corps in Denver, a branch of YouthBuild, a national nonprofit that helps volunteers earn their GED diplomas and pays them minimum wage to work in construction and conservation. As early as the first day on the job, he started to feel differently about himself, he says. “It was planting the seeds of ‘I can make a difference.’”
Today Mr. Jennings has a full-time job as a YouthBuild program coordinator, mentoring young adults while coaching Little League and finishing up his college degree in nonprofit management.
Getting more Americans like Mr. Jennings to serve their country lies at the center of a highly anticipated “grand strategy” put forward in March by the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Created by Congress, the commission argues that national service – funded by the federal government – is central to improving Americans’ quality of life, bolstering national security, and strengthening democracy.
While the commission made headlines this spring for recommending that women be required to register for the draft alongside men, it also stressed the need to elevate the status of national service – giving it the same prestige that military recruits enjoy.
To figure out how to do that, the commissioners took a yearlong Alexis de Tocqueville-like journey across the United States, gathering stories such as Mr. Jennings’ in hundreds of hours of testimony. Their conclusions came with a warning: Despite high demand, service opportunities for young people through AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and other programs such as YouthBuild have long remained static and require a new level of investment. The report recommends that lawmakers increase federal funding to boost the number of young people working in national service jobs from 80,000 today to 1 million by 2031.
It comes with hurdles, but advocates believe the coronavirus pandemic has only underscored the importance of such mission-oriented work.
“We’ve been prepared as a country for a terrorist attack or an overseas war, but clearly we haven’t been prepared – culturally or institutionally – for something like this,” says Emma Moore, analyst for the military, veterans, and society program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. “It highlights in my mind the greater need for national service.”
Adds retired Navy Capt. Steven Barney, a commissioner and a former general counsel for the Senate Armed Services Committee: “This is the answer to how we mobilize for something like a pandemic.”
Back in 1906, the philosopher William James, brother of Henry, called for America to create a “moral equivalent of war” through programs of national service that would rally the country to greatness and a shared sense of purpose.
He admitted that it’s hard to beat battlefields for this. “Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood,” he wrote in a widely celebrated essay. Those less martially inclined need to acknowledge the appeal of self-sacrifice and camaraderie forged in combat, he advised, and come up with something able to compete with the “dread hammer” of militarism as the “welder of men into cohesive states.”
The solution, he said, is mandatory national service. “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas,” he wrote. He also observed, “The martial type of character can be bred without war.”
The idea of mandatory national service has been raised – and ultimately rejected – as a possibility throughout American history. Just a couple of decades before James’ treatise, in 1888, Edward Bellamy published the wildly popular “Looking Backward,” a Utopian novel that was only outsold in its day by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” Written in the wake of the depression of 1873-79 and a series of recessions in the 1880s, the book called for mandatory service for men and women ages 21 to 45. Some 165 subsequent “Bellamy clubs” sprang up nationwide. The Russian translation of the book was banned by czarist censors for its socialist leanings.
In later decades, philosophers, policy analysts, and politicians offered their own proposals for a “moral equivalent of war.” The New Deal yielded the Civilian Conservation Corps, which mobilized, with the leadership of a young George Marshall, 3 million unemployed Americans who planted some 3 billion trees and constructed 97,000 miles of fire roads, among other projects, between 1933 and 1942, notes a November report by the Brookings Institution.
Following the success of the Peace Corps, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara pushed to tie civilian service to the draft in the early 1960s. Anthropologist Margaret Mead advocated a service program that “would replace for girls, even more than for boys, marriage as the route away from the parental home,” according to a 2019 report from the libertarian Cato Institute. When he was governor of Arkansas and a member of the Democratic Leadership Council, Bill Clinton called for a national Citizen Corps of 800,000 young people. During his presidency, his administration ultimately created the more modestly sized Corporation for National and Community Service and AmeriCorps.
Most recently, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, extolled the virtues of universal – though not mandatory – national service. He imagined an America in which “one full quarter of an age cohort, serving together to solve problems, will build attachment to community and country, understanding among people who might otherwise be skeptical of one another and a new generation of leaders who can get things done. I saw these effects for 34 years in the U.S. Army,” he wrote. “We need them in civilian life.”
The national commission on military and public service, too, set out to answer the question of whether national service should be mandatory for young adults, and ultimately declined to recommend taking this step. Few leaders are fond of working with conscripts who might turn out to be surly, particularly when kicking them out is tough to do.
“Policymakers should make every effort to promote voluntary approaches to service, reserving mandatory service as a last resort only in response to national emergencies and to ensure common defense,” the commission concluded.
Yet a growing number of countries have been adopting mandatory national service for young people. France last year launched a program championed by President Emmanuel Macron that will ultimately train some 800,000 teenagers a year. The aim is to strengthen social cohesion in a country that abolished mandatory military service more than 20 years ago, in 1997, and give young people “causes to defend and battles to fight in the social, environmental, and cultural domains,” Mr. Macron said.
For one month, 16-year-olds will live communally and give up their cellphones to learn first aid, map reading, and emergency response. After dinner each evening, they’ll be encouraged to debate social issues, such as gender discrimination and the roots of radicalization. Then they’ll have the chance to use their skills in volunteer jobs. The program will soon be written into the constitution and become mandatory over the next seven years. It is expected to cost $1.8 billion a year to run.
After abolishing a year of compulsory military service for men in 2011, Germany is now mulling the idea of bringing back a year of mandatory national service as well, in part to address chronic staff shortages in nursing homes and hospices. It would also be required for all adult asylum-seekers, as a way to better integrate migrants, say officials who point to an increasingly polarized society.
In the U.S., demand for government-sponsored volunteer jobs consistently outpaces the number of open slots. After 9/11, there were more than 150,000 requests for applications to the Peace Corps, for example, but only 7,000 positions available, notes the Brookings Institution report. That trend has continued, with the Peace Corps estimating that, on average, there are three to five times as many applications as slots available. These trends have been mirrored in AmeriCorps applications over the past decade, with three to five applicants for every one open position.
The programs seem to have a good effect on those who do get in. AmeriCorps surveys indicate that more than 80% of the program’s national service alumni credit their experience with making them more likely to attain a college degree, vote, volunteer, care about community issues, and fashion practical solutions to problems, the Brookings report says.
Yet expanding such programs is expensive. Convincing Congress to fund them, particularly given the cost of stimulus programs in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, will likely prove difficult.
While the call to “serve your country” still means joining the military in the minds of many Americans, some 70% of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t meet eligibility standards. Sharell Harmon, for her part, longed to enlist in the Air Force. But when she didn’t qualify, she applied to YouthBuild in Elkins, West Virginia, instead.
The orientation was heavy on trust-building exercises. A black woman in a predominantly white rural area, she wasn’t surprised that her teammates were mostly “guys who wear hunting gear on the back roads, living their best life.” What she didn’t foresee was that they’d become her “brothers” – the sort of battle buddies she’d once hoped to find in the armed forces. “They’re in my everyday,” she says. “We check in. They’re having kids now – we’re family. I didn’t qualify for the military, but it’s important to keep that structure, that support for folks, that possibility of service.”
The commissioners agreed, concluding that the concept of service must not only be “demilitarized,” but also better linked to government. Their recommendations include, among other things, creating a position on the National Security Council to coordinate military and civilian service, and adding slots in U.S. military academies for those interested in civilian government work. Studying and training together, the commission notes, could improve “whole of government” approaches to crises like the current coronavirus.
These steps could also spur the creation of a national database of volunteers that can be cross-referenced with the skills they bring to any crisis, “rather than just calling for them on Twitter,” Ms. Moore adds.
Revamping civics education
Prior to his time on Capitol Hill, serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee and as a staffer for the late Sen. John McCain, Mr. Barney was a Navy lawyer for 22 years. Though he was aware of national service, he still didn’t fully understand what it was, he says. To help remedy this, he and his fellow commissioners traveled to 22 states to ask: Why do or don’t you serve, and what are the obstacles to serving?
In many cases, the answer to that last query, they discovered, was financial. While military service comes with a salary as well as free health care and college tuition, government-backed volunteer programs such as AmeriCorps are less financially liberal. Designed to be intentionally modest, living allowances are often so low that “members cannot sustain themselves without outside assistance,” the commission’s report notes.
When Mr. Barney spoke at a kickoff event last spring for AmeriCorps in Boston, he was surprised to learn that the group’s initial training included a tutorial on how to register for food stamps. Many volunteers who skipped this step acknowledged that the only reason they could participate in the program is that they had family willing to support them. In 2018, the average budgeted living allowance for full-time AmeriCorps volunteers was $15,370.
If volunteers can manage to make ends meet, however, they often come away with valuable skills. Before Maya Gonzalez discovered Mile High Youth Corps in Denver, she wasn’t earning enough working in construction to support her wife and stepchildren. But there were opportunities in energy conservation, program coordinators told her.
“I didn’t know or care much about energy efficiency,” she says. “But they said, ‘You should look into it.’” She did, and through the program became an expert in LED lightbulbs and water-efficient toilets. “I didn’t know toilets mattered,” but by replacing an old model using upward of 1.6 gallons per flush with a new one using half that amount, “You can only imagine how much that saved on water bills,” she says.
What Ms. Gonzalez particularly loved was working with low-income residents. “I’m this Hispanic girl with tattoos – I grew up in the projects – and right away they get the sense I come from a certain background,” she says. “One client told me, ‘I love that it’s you walking in. You feel my pain.’ And, OK, that’s kind of stereotypical, but I’m glad they know they’re not getting judged. All of a sudden they’re making you breakfast while you change a lightbulb.”
Keeping volunteers in their own communities is ideal, says Mr. Barney, who, along with fellow commissioners, recommends creating federally funded fellowships. Under these, people interested in national service would be given a card they could take to any organization and say, “I’m here to help you, and this gives you everything you need to bring me on board.” This might help locals pinpoint sources of need in their neighborhoods.
Better civics education is key, too, the report stresses, since it teaches students how Americans have worked in the past for positive, fundamental change – and overcome efforts to thwart it. As the commissioners traveled the country, “nearly every conversation included a passionate call to improve civic education,” the report points out, noting that the federal government spends more than $3.2 billion for science, technology, engineering, and math programs, versus about $5 million annually on civics.
A handful of states has revamped these courses in ways that could serve as a model for the country. Illinois now requires classroom discussions of “current and controversial events,” and also encourages some volunteering. Florida law mandates that all middle schoolers get one semester of civics, and Massachusetts calls for its high schoolers to take part in at least one “nonpartisan” civics project.
“You need to have service learning opportunities, starting in kindergarten,” Mr. Barney says. “Our vision is that by the time a person graduates, someone will ask, ‘What is your plan to serve?’ and they’ll have a ready answer.”
As a mentor, Mr. Jennings helps his students think through such questions. Hearing their stories helps him point them toward a path that’s right for them. He still aches, though, for the friends and family who didn’t qualify, or weren’t chosen, for programs that have altered the course of his life.
“My story isn’t unique – a lot of folks face adversity at a young age. Opportunity,” he adds, “is the fork in the road.”