National Service: Cultivating Unity, Meaning, and Skills
I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the concept of national service. I realized that national service was a great way to cultivate unity and belonging (pride), finding a sense of meaning (purpose), and getting trained in useful skills (proficiency.)
The rifts that have formed in America over social and political contentions are alarming, and I believe service is one of the best modes of healing. People pitching in and working together across divisive lines—race, religion, economic status etc.—would help build our collective identity in the things we do have in common.
What if service was mandatory for all Americans? We can see the question from many angles and hold diverse interpretations. Let’s start by reviewing the national service options that already exist here, then we can take a look at what other countries are doing and how we might learn from them.
Most people think of national service as being military, which it often is. Although the US Military has been all-volunteer since 1973, an agency called the Selective Service System is responsible for maintaining a list of men aged 18-25 who are required by law to register so that they may be drafted in case of national emergency. National service includes civilian activities. In fact, many countries with conscription (obligatory military service) give non-military options to conscientious objectors to complete their service. One such example is Finland.
In the U.S. we have two large-scale, government-run civilian service programs that you’ve probably heard of: Peace Corps and Americorps. Both engage volunteers on projects that further education, economic stability, public health and safety, environmental conservation, and other human concerns. But Americorps does this domestically while Peace Corps is international. Nevertheless, both are popular options with young people. This is due to young generations hoping to gain meaningful experience before jumping straight from high school to college. According to an article in the New Yorker that advocates for increasing national service, AmeriCorps receives far more applications than it has openings!
The idea of building our national service muscle has captivated American politicians across party lines, with supporters as ideologically diverse as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stanley McChrystal and John McCain. Not only is it popping up in public debate, but a US National Commission on Service was held from November 2018 – July 2020. The Commission, which conducted a review of the Selective Service System and investigated forms of civilian service, “was created with a broad, aspirational mandate: to develop ideas that will foster a greater ethos of military, national, and public service among Americans of all ages and, in the process, strengthen our democracy. . . We hope to ignite a national conversation around service and inspire more Americans to serve.”
One major finding of the report was the recommendation to continue the Selective Service System, and even expand it to include women. It would be the first time in the history of our nation that women could potentially be drafted. (A very well-researched article on the debate about this issue is here.) In addition, a handful of countries around the globe have conscription for both men and women. This includes Israel, Sweden and Morocco.
The Commission also met with representatives from Norway, Nigeria, Estonia and Colombia to learn about their national service programs. Estonians, for example, must complete 8-11 months of military service. But in a typically progressive move, the government of this small but high-tech nation recently gave new conscripts the option of performing it in the Cyber Command of Estonian Defense Forces. No wonder the Commission wanted to consult with them—cybersecurity is one of the biggest challenges that modern nations face! Deploying human capital to solve national problems is one of the benefits of service programs.
In a similar vein, Germany just launched a highly selective program of volunteer military service called “Your Year for Germany.” It focuses on homeland security. Some analysts have suggested that the U.S. should follow this model. Using volunteer power will bolster us against increasing threats like coronavirus and natural disasters.
But there is a dark side to national service as well. When imposed by corrupt and draconian governments, it can be a means to exploit and entrap people. One sad example is Eritrea. Human Rights Watch issued a report about how the Eritrean government’s conscription practices are abusive, forcing youth to spend the final year of secondary school in military training camp before often being drafted directly into the military. Other conscripts sometimes hold civilian positions with low pay, horrible conditions, and no time off. At times, they experience forced labor. This oppressive system has forced thousands of youths into exile. An article in the Guardian even likened Eritrea’s national service system to slavery.
Here in the U.S., the question of whether citizens should be obliged to perform mandatory service raises questions of autonomy and constitutional rights. I feel that the benefits of national service are significant enough to consider its implementation. For example, it allows healing our collective wounds while developing individual pride, purpose, and proficiency.
More on this soon as we continue to explore what other countries are doing with their national service programs!