Does the U.S. Need a Unifying National Service Program?

March 29, 2012; Source: Miller-McCune (Pacific Standard)

With the desultory performance of the Corporation for National and Community Service for the last several months in the wake of Patrick Corvington’s abrupt departure as its CEO and the protracted process of getting Obama-nominee Wendy Spencer approved to head the troubled agency, it is hard to find the scent of the heady national service days of 2008. At that time, the nation was promised a quadrupling of AmeriCorps and other national service programs as a result of the Kennedy/Hatch legislation that also led to the creation of the Social Innovation Fund. But for the past year or more, the national service energy of the beginning of the Obama administration has been difficult to find.

According to an article in Miller-McCune, New York Times columnist David Brooks lauded Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart, but concluded with a point that the libertarian Murray would not have endorsed: “‘we need a National Service Program’ to reunify the nation.”

The community service community might be all atwitter at Brooks’ endorsement, though they might not go for the kind of community service that existed from World War II through the mid-1970s, which carried with it the notion of military conscription. The draft was unifying. After the military was desegregated, the draft served to bring people of all walks of life and from all racial and ethnic groups into the melting pot of the U.S. armed forces. Murray’s book addresses the increasing polarization of the U.S. and Brooks bought the idea of national service as a means of finding common ground, but only the civilian side of the historical practice. Murray, however, thinks that Brooks is a bit of a romantic, suggesting that big government initiatives of almost any sort generally don’t work (he considers the unification seen during World War II or NASA’s Apollo program anomalies).

Would the U.S return to military conscription? Would a revived military draft also include women (as it does in Israel)? Or does Brooks envision a national service that allows young people from all walks of life to participate in mandatory service, but still maintain an all-volunteer military, which tends to draw on people from the working class and lower income groups? Do you believe in mandatory national service?—Rick Cohen

About

Rick Cohen

Rick joined NPQ in 2006, after almost eight years as the executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Before that he played various roles as a community worker and advisor to others doing community work. He has also worked in government. Cohen pursues investigative and analytical articles, advocates for increased philanthropic giving and access for disenfranchised constituencies, and promotes increased philanthropic and nonprofit accountability.

  • Kelly Kleiman

    If we do introduce mandatory national service, let’s make sure that one of the qualifying jobs is full-time parenthood. It provides a vital service at least as important as teaching or firefighting or soldiering.

    Mandatory national service (including but not restricted to the military) is an excellent idea, and its institution would assure that no future President or Congress would go to war on a whim.