A very long time ago, I found myself in Army basic training at Fort Dix, NJ. Mud on my boots or dust in my lungs. Forced marching and full pack running until we dropped. The guy next to me picked me up. He would have hailed from another part of the country and knew a culture quite foreign to me. But he picked me up. We urged each other on. And we suffered each other’s snoring in the barracks. I was grateful to have had some comradery in a hellish experience.
I was lucky enough to have never faced combat. And I hated almost every aspect of a military experience. But I learned how to appreciate fellow humans who I would otherwise have never encountered. Sure, that happens in college. But there is nothing like the stress of real physical challenges to bond people.
Many nations have some form of mandatory military service. Germany, Israel, and Sweden are examples. I don’t recommend it. Although it would be smart to diversify our armed forces. We might be less apt to jump into ill-advised invasions of nations if the sons and daughters of the rich were required to participate in the charge. Our military is now comprised of a very narrow representation of our populace. Time to diversify. But I would not suggest that military service be required. I hated it. It went against my core nature.
But I do suggest a form of mandatory national service. It could be military. It could also be hospital work or building infrastructure – think CCC of the 1930’s. It could be helping out in schools. It could be learning a trade working in a town that needs the help. It could be as simple as delivering water to the many thousands of Americans who do not have access to potable water. It could be mentoring a refugee or new immigrant.
The range of these activities would only be limited by our imaginations. In fact, a “draftee” might have the opportunity to make a proposal. Whatever the endeavor, it would need to be of service to others.
And after this service, pick your time frame...maybe one or two years, the young person would have a full boat scholarship to either college or a trade building education. Perhaps the “national service” could be woven into an apprenticeship that could be refined after “graduation”. Smarter minds than mine can come up with a great system. They could start by looking at the successes in other countries. That’s not a natural tendency in this “exceptional America”. But it could save a lot of mistakes. We could improve on their national service systems – tailoring it to our country.
I would add another dimension to this plan for national service. There should be no deferments. With the exception of very serious illness or incapacity, all young people would be required to participate. Whether it was helping provide internet to rural areas or being an orderly in an assisted care facility or teaching computer skills to the elderly – there could be an assignment that would be appropriate. A young person with challenges would only grow by being involved in helping others.
The value to society is obvious. The help young people could provide could be immeasurably valuable. But the value to each individual would be the powerful influence of working alongside someone who hailed from a very different culture. I was with fellow soldiers whose accents were so thick that I had to respond to many comments with “sorry, again” or “what?”. We squabbled. We laughed. We endured. And at the end of basic training, we promised to stay in touch. We didn’t, of course. But I remember becoming friendly and yes, even dependent, on someone who I would have dismissed because he talked funny. We found empathy for each other. An emotion that is all too rare in our society right now.
Here are some recent articles that explore this further: