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We need you: national service, an idea whose time has come.



The idea of national service has become respectable. The centrist Democratic Leadership Council, chaired by former Virginia Gov. Charles Robb, recently lauded national service as a way to "foster a new spirit of patriotism and citizenship.' Three possible Democratic presidential candidates--Bill Bradley, Gary Hart, and Bruce Babbitt--now favor it. Even the Ford Foundation, that fount of carefully considered opinions, has joined the crusade.

When an idea acquires so distinguished a chorus, it pays to be skeptical. But national service is one idea that has genuine appeal. It would be a good way to perform a variety of important tasks, from rebuilding infrastructure, to caring for those in need, to cleaning up the environment, to boosting military manpower. Just as important, it would be a way to break the apathy and self-absorption that have taken hold of our culture.

One program cited approvingly by national service advocates is New York's new City Volunteer Corps (CVC), an experiment in providing service to the community by harnessing the energies of the young. In May, I joined a group of ten CVC volunteers at a senior center in the basement of St. Mark's Church in Elmhurst, Queens. The 17- to 20-year-old "CVs' have painted Staten Island ferry boats, provided companionship and performed household chores for the elderly, helped elementary school teachers supervise young children, and built nature trails. They have even participated in an archaeological dig at a Dutch colonial farmhouse in Ridgewood, Queens.

The team I was assigned to as a "volunteer for the day'--Team 34--had already insulated, roofed, and poured the floor of a small garage used for storage by a senior citizen center. When I caught up with them, they were building a garbage shed behind the garage. As we cut long boards and hammered them down for the roof, I was impressed by both the sturdiness of the carpentry and the spirit of cooperation within the group.

But I was also struck by something else: I was the only person on the team who was not black or Hispanic. Worthwhile a program as the CVC is, it nevertheless demonstrates a serious shortcoming of voluntary national service: it draws disproportionately from minorities and the poor. According to Roy Lee, who served as team leader of Team 34--a job that is a rough cross between camp counselor, foreman, and social worker-- every member of his group was on some form of public assistance. Several of the girls were teenage mothers. The problem, as Mary Bleiberg, CVC's director of program and project development, explained to me, is that there aren't many middle class or white kids between the ages of 17 and 20--the eligibility range for CVC--who are not either in school or in a job. "Parents, schools, and society at large are saying stay on track, go to college, get a job, don't take any chances.'

The same problem exists in other volunteer groups. The California Conservation Corps, for example, is disproportionately black. The enlisted ranks of the all-volunteer Army are drawn largely from the poor. The situation is similar, if less stark, in the other armed services. The wealthy simply do not participate. Indeed, the two voluntary service groups that do have upper-class representation, the Peace Corps and VISTA, are both pathetically small, with a combined total of fewer than 9,000 members.

This pattern of the privileged classes avoiding service is bound to haunt the voluntary national service programs proposed by the Democratic presidential hopefuls. Having found in national service a worthy proposal ignored by Republicans and, according to serveral opinion polls, supported by a strong majority of Americans, Democrats seem reluctant to embrace the only method of implementing it that would actually ensure full participation: compulsory service.

Draft dodger rag

Few Americans delight in being "forced' to do things by their government; if paying taxes were voluntary, it's a safe bet that most would respectfully decline. But our best historical models for national service--the military drafts--have demonstrated clearly that when the rich are allowed to opt out, as they were during the Civil War and the Vietnam war, the results are painful and destructive to society.

The Union began drafting in 1863. During 1863 and 1864, 522,000 registrants were examined; 204,000 of these were called to service. But only 43,000--less than a quarter of those found fit-- were actually drafted. The rest either paid "commutation fees' of about $300--roughly a year's salary for a working man--or found substitutes, freeing themselves from participation in our nation's bloodiest war. "I have already given two cousins to the war,' quipped humorist Artemus Ward, "and I stand reddy to sacrifiss my wife's brother. . . . And if wuss comes to wuss, I'll shed every drop of blood my able-bodied relations has got to prosekoot the war.'

Substitutions and, especially, commutation fees, gave rise to the charge that it was a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight.' While the poor died in battle, wealthy citizens such as Grover Cleveland and John D. Rockefeller bought their way out. The result, in July 1863, was class warfare in the streets of New York and in other northern cities.

The New York City draft riots began on July 13, nine days after the battle of Gettysburg. Posted in Union Square were the names of New Yorkers who had died in the battle. A disproportionate number were Irish. As the crowd assembled in Herald Square listened to the names drawn in that day's draft lottery--Callahan, O'Brien, O'Rourke--the cry went up, "To hell with the draft and the war!' A mob stormed the state arsenal, drove out 40 policemen and 15 armed workmen, seized guns, and set the building on fire. Factories were burned, and Horace Greeley's Tribune was besieged. Brooks Brothers and the great houses of Gramercy Park were looted. Policemen and blacks were lynched, stabbed, and shot. Not even children were spared; the Colored Orphan Asylum at 43rd and Lexington, a favored charitable institution of the rich, was overrun. The crowd, enraged to see the rocking horses and other luxuries denied their own children, killed one black child. It took three days for federal troops to restore order. In the meantime, according to Columbia University history professor James Shenton, 1,500 people were killed and millions of dollars in property was damaged.

One hundred years later, America repeated the mistake. In the Vietnam-era draft, the upper classes again had their less-privileged countrymen do the nation's dirty work. Just as Artemus Ward had offered up his "able-bodied relations' to the war effort, now the folksinger Phil Ochs sang in "Draft Dodger Rag,'

Sarge, I'm only 18, I got a ruptured spleen

And I always carry a purse

I got eyes like a bat and my feet are flat

My asthma's getting worse

Oh, think of my career, my sweetheart dear

My poor old invalid aunt

Besides, I ain't no fool

I'm a-going to school. . . .

The student deferment became the key tool used by the upper middle class to avoid the draft; indeed, one 1972 study showed "avoiding the draft' ranked among the three most important reasons students cited for going to college. Because enrollment in graduate school made one eligible for deferment, many who might not have been academically inclined ended up spending a few extra years in school. The Vietnam graduate deferment helps explain why so many prominent Americans in their thirties and early forties have divinity school degrees; David Stockman is a widely noted example.

The graduate deferment was eliminated in 1968, and the undergraduate deferment in 1971. But in both cases a loophole remained for those students who were already enrolled. As for those arriving too late to take advantage of deferment--or unwilling to put up with the rigors of graduate school--a number of popular techniques of bureaucratic manipulation evolved to tie the local draft board in knots. These, as Phil Ochs noted, included feigning illness, homosexuality, or mental instability. Writing in this magazine ("What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?' October 1975), James Fallows described seeing more than one fellow college student "prove' he was unfit by tossing a urine sample in an orderly's face at a draft physical.

In the end, of the 11 million who served in the military during the Vietnam era, almost none came from the privileged classes. Not one graduate of MIT died in Vietnam. While class riots didn't break out in the streets, a lingering resentment over who did and didn't fight remains, increasing the bitterness and sense of isolation felt by many Vietnam vets. Indeed, many critics have argued that the war dragged on as long as it did precisely because the sons of those powerful and influential Americans who could have put a stop to it were not fighting and dying in the effort.

Military melting pot

In contrast to the Vietnam war and the Civil War, the World War II draft took the principle of a universal draft and made it a reality. The 1940 Selective Training and Service Act included deferment for college students, but a manpower shortage soon necessitated that it be restricted to those studying in such critical fields as engineering, science, and medicine. In addition, society was less tolerant of ingenious strategies to avoid the draft. Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, president of the Union Theological Seminary and uncle of future antiwar activist, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, warned that the seminary would not become a "haven for draft dodgers.' His nephew served as an infantry officer in Europe. Between 1941 and 1946, the Selective Service, under the leadership of General Lewis B. Hershey, inducted ten million Americans into the armed forces. Six million more volunteered. In the end, 70 percent of all able-bodied males of draft age--18 to 38--ended up serving.

Some of the flavor of this military melting pot is conveyed in the writings of Ernie Pyle. In his 1944 book, Brave Men, Pyle draws thumbnail sketches of several sailors he encountered on board a navy ship. Joe Raymer, electrician's mate first class, was a traveling salesman for Pillsbury in Ohio. Warren Ream, storekeeper third class, worked in the advertising departments of several big stores in Los Angeles. Joe Talbot, aviation ordnanceman first class, was a photographer for the Columbus Ledger-Inquirer. Tom Temple, seaman first class, was a 19-year-old from Long Island bound for Harvard and the publishing business. Joe Ederer, lieutenant commander and chief engineer, was a veteran of the merchant marine who lived in Oregon. Arch Fulton, electrician's mate second class, was a lineman for the Cleveland Illuminating Company.

Alongside such soldiers served the likes of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Joe DiMaggio, Jimmy Stewart, Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., and Joe Louis. The participation of all classes in the war is further reflected in those who were killed, including the bandleader Glenn Miller; Wells Lewis, son of the Nobel prizewinning novelist Sinclair Lewis; Peter Lehman, son of the investment banker, governor, and senator, Herbert Lehman; Stephen Hopkins, son of presidential adviser Harry Hopkins; and Joseph Kennedy Jr., older brother of the future president.

The egalitarianism of the World War II draft was far from flawless; white and black troops were still segregated, and there were even separate Red Cross containers for "white blood' and "negro blood.' Still, different social classes were brought together to an unprecedented degree with extraordinarily beneficial results. "The Army has taught me not only how to kill,' wrote an army major after he returned to civilian life in 1945, "it has taught me how to live. . . . The scope of the world is only hinted at to the average man in the stories he reads and the movies he sees. In the armed forces he has for daily companions all the characters of life's drama. . . . [T]here is more about a man to irritate his neighbors, and more about his neighbors which seems irritating to him, before a spell in the Army than after it.'

The secret was discovering the good qualities of people one would never get to know in ordinary civilian life. Campaigning for Congress in 1946, John F. Kennedy described the strong feeling of community that resulted:

Most of the courage shown in the war came from men's understanding of their dependence on each other. Men were saving other men's lives as the risk of their own simply because they realized that perhaps the next day their lives would be saved in turn. . . . Now they miss the feeling of interdependence, that sense of working together for a common cause. In civilian life, they feel they have only themselves to depend on. . . . One veteran told me that when he brought one of his army friends to his home, his wife said, "What could you possibly see in O'Brien?' The veteran remembered O'Brien in Italy, walking with him from Sicily to the Po Valley, every bloody mile of the way. He knew what he could see in O'Brien.

The military draft, which ended after World War II, was revived with the onset of the Cold War in 1948. This time Harry Truman chose the occasion to desegregate the troops, making the military the first victory of the civil rights movement. One general recalled, "The attitude of the southern soldiers was that this was the army way; they accepted it the same way they accepted getting up at 5:30 in the morning.'

During these postwar years, a strong ethic of wanting to serve remained. The journalist Christopher Buckley has written that an uncle who had missed World War II viewed Korea "almost as a relief.' Meanwhile, as James Fallows noted in National Defense, "the combination of a large standing army and a relatively small draft-age population meant that most able-bodied males, from Elvis Presley to Philip Roth, looked on the draft as a fact of life.' Although a student deferment was introduced during the Korean War, students were generally exempted only through the current semester--and even then, they were eligible only if they were carrying a heavy scholastic load.

Junior's fast track

The two decades since the demise of the equitable draft have seen the development of an insidious trend in American society: the creation of enormous and unprecedented class barriers. The decline of public schools and a variety of other class-mixing situations have contributed to class isolation. You can see it in the emphasis on credentialism in the workplace, which drives a wedge between the college--or today, the graduate-school--educated and those who never acquired a sheepskin. Writing in The New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich recently observed that social class barriers are reflected even in the department stores where we shop. Stores that once catered to customers across the economic spectrum are either closing (Korvettes, Gimbels) or repositioning themselves to serve the upscale market (Sears, J.C. Penney). The rich are left with Bloomingdales, while the poor and middle class go to K-mart and Woolco. Most of us have very little shared experience with people from significantly different walks of life.

It's hard to measure the effects of this class isolation. But if the attitudes of the young are any gauge, the result has been disastrous. For example, a 1979 survey of high school students in Minnesota asked, "What do teenagers believe they owe their community and country?' The majority answered "nothing.'

This year The Washington Post conducted an extensive study of the attitudes of today's college students and concluded: "By their own description, these undergraduates are self-centered, materialistic and practical. . . . Life has been good to them, and they expect more of the same. To many, happiness means a $30,000-a-year job without boredom, a sizable house, a good familly life--and maybe a cottage in Cape Cod, a boat and a Rolex watch.'

"Everybody is thinking about making it,' one junior told the Post. "Everyone is focused on themselves and what success can bring.'

Given this mood, the supporters of voluntary national service can hardly count on the more privileged members of this generation to voluntarily rush off to the nearest recruiting office to sign up for a couple of years of low paying, regimented service cleaning bedpans and painting bridges. B.T. Collins, who, as former head of the California Conservation Corps, knows as much as anybody about voluntary youth service programs, says you shouldn't ask teenagers if they want to serve their country. "Of course they don't want to. They want to sit around and smoke dope and fuck each other.' Even if affluent youths were more public-spirited, their parents would likely panic at the thought of Junior getting off the fast track for a couple of years and losing that leg up that they have been struggling to give him since they got him into the most competitive nursery school in town.

Some day the service ethic may be so deeply ingrained in American culture that a voluntary program will naturally attract great numbers of youths from all classes. That would be ideal. Until then, a little compulsion is required to make sure the burden is fairly distributed.

How would it work? Young people would be given the choice of military or civilian service. The term for the former should be shorter simply because on the whole it is more demanding and dangerous. Both men and women should be required to serve.

Those who oppose such a draft often argue that during peacetime sufficient need does not exist to justify compulsion. This is simply not the case. In addition to the urgent need to bring Americans together in a common enterprise, our country faces a long list of serious problems that won't be solved any other way.

National service would make it possible for society to get essential work done that we cannot afford to pay for in an era of $200 billion deficits--work like caring for children and the elderly, cleaning up the environment, teaching in ghetto schools, and rebuilding the nation's crumbling infrastructure of roads, bridges, and water and sewage systems. Take just the first two and it's clear that the need is enormous.

Sixty percent of all mothers work, making the need for quality care an urgent one. But quality day care is available only to those wealthy enough to pay for it. The result, for the average working parent, is anguish.

Perhaps the greatest of society's unmet needs is care for the elderly. The elderly are the fastest-growing age group in our society. In 1930, they accounted for 6 percent of the population; today they are 12 percent. By 2030 they will be 21 percent. Most daunting of all, the fastest-growing part of the elderly population is those who are 85 and older--most of whom need to be cared for. Almost all of us have some personal knowledge of the problem the infirm elderly can present to their families. One typical illustration of the problem appeared recently in The New York Times. Seventy-year-old Gertrude Schmidt of Port Charlotte, Florida described herself to the Times as a "24-hour a day nurse' to her husband Howard, age 87, who is bedridden from a stroke. "I better stay healthy,' she said. "I couldn't afford to put him in a nursing home if it came to the point I couldn't care for him. Three years ago when he had kidney problems he went into a nursing home for 12 days and I was fearful then I would have to mortgage the house.'

Mrs. Schmidt is not alone. Nursing home care costs on average $20,000 to $30,000 a year, far beyond the means of most elderly people. National service could help alleviate the problem by providing both nursing home workers and assistance to those elderly persons who choose to care for a feeble husband or wife at home.

Using national service members to care for the elderly would also help change, in less tangible but equally important ways, attitudes held by the young. Carl Weisbrod, who was the CVC's first director, told me, "Old people disgusted [some CVs] before they joined the CVC. After working with the elderly, they saw how much they have to contribute.' CVs have continued visiting nursing home patients after a team assignment has ended; there have even been cases of CVs moving into hospices to be with dying patients around the clock.

In all, a 1978 Labor Department study concluded, there are 3.5 million jobs--not including those in the military--that could be performed by those in national service. As it happens, there are about that many 18 year olds in America today.

As for the military, even though pay levels have substantially increased since the draft was abolished, the Navy recently announced that the percentage of recruits with a high school degree declined from 89 percent in 1985 to 79 percent in 1986. That percentage will go down further in the coming decade as the children of the baby boom are displaced by those of the "baby bust.' With a shortage of recent high school graduates, the military will feel pressured to sweeten the pot to get people to join up--at a time when the defense budget is already out of control. It is entirely possible that demographics alone will make a military draft necessary in the next decade.

All in all, there is little question that there is enough work, both civilian and military, to keep a national service productive. To be sure, there is always a danger that the bureaucrats will turn national service into a gigantic boondoggle. But the experience of World War II provides some hope. The democratic draft that brought in all segments of the population, including the influential and well-connected, made the armed forces more efficient and more responsive to improvement than they ever were before or have been since. For example, the inefficient P-40 fighter was quickly replaced by the much more effective P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang. If only we could replace a DIVAD or Bradley Fighting Vehicle so fast today! When a congressman or Pentagon official back then was hearing from his brother-in-law in the service that a weapon didn't work and a lot of men were dying because of it, that official did something about it.

How can we pay for such an ambitious program? Most estimates put the cost of universal national service at about $30 billion, which assumes extremely low pay. But there is another side of the ledger--savings. In their new book, National Service: What Would it Mean, Richard Danzig and Peter Szanton estimate that the military could save $2 billion annually by cutting entry pay by a third. There can be little doubt that the All Volunteer Force has raised military personnel costs. In 1964, when the draft was still in force, the Army paid enlisted recruits $78 a month, not including benefits. Today, that figure is $596 a month--roughly two and a half times the 1964 pay level, discounting inflation. Higher pay has attracted more married men who might once have found military wages too low to support a family; this in turn has raised the cost of certain military benefits. For example, transfering a married army sergeant and his family costs an average of $3,200, compared to $750 for an unmarried sergeant.

Similar savings could be found on the civilian side, as national service workers performed work, such as infrastructure repair, that would otherwise be paid for many years hence at a higher price. Finally, one lesson we can learn from the experience of other countries--Canada, Britain, and the U.S. are the only western democracies that do not have compulsory national service-- is that national service programs are logistically possible.

There may be times when the nation simply can't afford to have everyone eligible involved in national service. At such times it would be possible to limit the size of the national service workforces by means of a lottery. We used the lottery during World War I and, until 1942, in World War II. It did not cause resentment. And if the ground rules are fair--no class-based exemptions, such as those for college, and, especially, graduate students--a lottery could be a solution that would be widely accepted.

Give something back

Some supporters of a broad-based national service who are nonetheless wary of drafting people to participate have suggested alternative inducements. One possibility is to offer the kind of special scholarships Brown University now offers for students who have performed service. Charles Moskos, a military manpower expert at Northwestern University, has an alternative proposal: given that federal student aid packages amount to a "GI Bill without the GI,' he argues that civilian or military service should be the price students pay in return. Danzig and Szanton propose four models for national service, the most ambitious of which would add a 5 percent federal income surtax annually to those who did not perform civilian or military service. Most of these proposals are intriguing, but unfortunately all of them leave the option of buying your way out of service.

It is sometimes argued that compulsion would violate the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition against involuntary servitude. But, as a unanimous Supreme Court decided in Butler v. Perry, that amendment was directed at slavery, a practice under which individuals were compelled to provide lifetime service for a private plantation owner, not at reasonable services required by society for the common good, such as serving in the Army or on a jury.

What of those who concede that national service may be constitutional but find compulsion morally wrong? This concern has been raised on both the left and the right. Jack Kemp has said, "At the age of 18, you should be focusing on your dreams and ambitions, not picking up cans in Yellowstone.' The Progressive has compared national service to the Soviet Gulag. Somewhere in between, both ideologically and in terms of reasonableness, is Nicholas Von Hoffman's suggestion that we "draft old men's money, not young men's bones.'

Common to all three of these positions is that the draft is an unreasonable imposition on the lives of the young. Yet because a voluntary national service program is unlikely to attract people from all classes, those arguments are deceptive in their concern for the individual. What they're really saying is that it's fine for poor youths to serve and perhaps die in disproportionately large numbers, as long as children of the privileged can lead uninterrupted lives. There is something clearly unjust and shameful about that.

And while the idea of mandatory national service stirs among many that healthy American hostility to anything that smacks of Big Brother, in this case the hostility is misdirected. It is important to remember that compulsory national service can only happen if it is enacted by Congress, by the representatives we elect. If the people don't want it, it's not going to happen. Can you imagine a bunch of congressmen sitting around talking about how they're going to do their solemn duty and impose a draft on a public that does not support it, gaily chatting about how much fun it will be to lose the next election? It is also important to realize that once a draft has been enacted, it can be abolished. That is just what has happened three times in our history and it will happen again with any draft that loses popular support.

Finally, compulsion does not have to involve the threat of prison that has been used to enforce drafts in the past. It may well be that the threatened loss of various privileges will suffice. Suppose if, instead of jailing the young man who refuses to do his national service, we simply tell him he will never get a driver's license? Certainly the problem of upper-class participation would be solved completely if a proposal of William F. Buckley is adopted: have the presidents of all Ivy League universities agree that no one will be admitted who has not done national service.

The key is that the enforcement method ensures participation by all segments of the population. History has shown that the benefits of bringing different types of people together for a common enterprise alone make a strong argument for universal national service. Maybe such a national service program could even help us snap out of today's what's-in-it-for-me zeitgeist. And no, writing out a check to the IRS every April 15 does not discharge our obligations. Each of us takes so much from society; and, in so many ways--from polluting the air to not devoting enough time with our elderly kin--each of us contributes to the problems our nation faces. We need to start giving some more back.
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Author:Noah, Timothy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1986
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