I was in line at the Target store the other day and happened to overhear the conversation of two young men in their early 20s discussing their achievements in some violent computer war game. One of them was at least 300 pounds and the other looked to be a relatively slim 250 or so.
Sunday is Veteran’s Day, and its connection to present-day America is fast becoming as distant to our culture as is Columbus Day (also known as Discovery Day, Native People’s Day and Why Don’t We Get the Day Off Day).
According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, only about 7.4 percent (as of 2015) of all Americans have ever served in the military, and that number declines annually as veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam pass into history.
On that Veteran’s Day, most of the millions of young people who otherwise would have been eligible to defend their country would not qualify even if they wanted to. A 2014 report by the Department of Defense argued that 71 percent of all American youth were unsuitable for the Army, Navy, Air Force, etc, because of poor health (including obesity and physical fitness), drug use, criminal records and education (or the absence thereof).
Add that all up and you have a nation that is increasingly out of touch with its military in a variety of bad ways. Not being personally involved, most people don’t mind committing our soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen (airpeople?) to open-ended wars (we’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for 17 years now) as long as it isn’t “us,” and most of “us” wouldn’t qualify anyway.
The answer isn’t a military draft. The Vietnam experience has poisoned that well for at least a century. But the idea of a national service program has considerable appeal.
Compulsory service is a non-starter, at least for now. But if you built in enough incentives and benefits (along with some negative reinforcement toward those who would rather stay home and play video games while wolfing down Cheetos on mom’s old sofa in the spare room) it might work.
It might work something like this. All able-bodied men and women ages 18 to 30 are “invited” to participate in a national service program. It would have three components: military, environmental/infrastructure and social services.
The military component would likely be for a two-year term, pay better and carry better benefits. This would involve mostly stateside duty, with some potential for overseas deployment, similar to the National Guard or reserve.
The E/I component would likely be a shorter term, one year to 18 months. This area would teach skills to help repair the many roads, bridges and other facilities we have neglected for too long. Helping to create sustainable communities could be a focus. Disaster relief could also be a component helping to speed and expand help to areas hit by hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding and fire.
In social services, we would train and employ teachers, counselors, social workers, medical staff and more to deal with issues ranging from improving public education to coping with opioid addiction and family violence.
All of these programs would carry free college (or technical education), low- or no-interest loans for homes, health insurance and a lot of public accolades. Colleges and employers could place a premium on those who successfully completed their public service.
Additionally, these components would teach CPR, basic first aid and a simple vocabulary of other languages, all of which would be useful in a disaster.
No one would be compelled to participate, but the effect – I hope – would be to bring people together from different cultures, provide a myriad of benefits to our cities and states and build a sense of common purpose and patriotism.
John Kennedy started the Sixties with “Ask not what you country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” In the Seventies we got into “The Me Decade,” which now seems to be every decade.
A national public service program would be a nice start toward creating a new wave of “veterans” not just of the armed services, but also of all the services, which make America safe. And who knows? All that activity might slim down those guys in the line at Target.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears on alternate Wednesdays. For more on the national service idea, go to this link: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/09/14/the-case-for-universal-national-service.html