Young People And American National Service Cultural Studies Essay

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In a recent survey that I created on SurveyMonkey.com, I discovered that 64% of the participants thought the U.S. should require some form of service from America's young people, whether in the armed forces, in AmeriCorps, in the Peace Corps, in homeland security, or assisting our nation's elderly and disabled citizens. Sixty-eight percent agreed that two years of drills, forced marches, physical exercise, and active duty would do wonders to today's sniveling, whiny MTV zombies. However, one of the most interesting things I learned in this survey was that 80% said, "Way to go" in response to me telling my son he had to choose between college full time or the military full time. And, when asked if they were in favor of the federal government imposing a requirement that no four year college or university be allowed to accept a student, unless that student had completed a twelve month to two-year term of service, 81% said, "No." So, it looks like it's "way to go" when it's someone else's kid but "no way" when it could be their kid. The first thing that comes to my mind is, Representative Charles Rangel's [D-NY] December 31, 2002 op-ed in The New York Times, where he points out that "the Congress that voted overwhelmingly to allow the use of force in Iraq includes only one member who has a child in the enlisted ranks of the military with just a few more having children that are officers."

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It looks like I have found an issue on which we can finally follow the voice of the American voter, move in a new direction and give the Democrats something they desperately want [after all, they're the ones that bring it up all the time]. A month later, in January 2003, Rangel introduced legislation to bring back the draft because, "a renewed draft will help bring a greater appreciation of the consequences of decisions to go to war." According to Rangel, "Throughout much of our history, Americans have been asked to shoulder the burden of war equally." As an opponent of the invasion of Iraq, which was then still in its planning stages, Rangel felt that Americans would be less likely to support the war if they thought that they or their children might have to fight it. The bill was quietly defeated in a vote of 402-2; with even Rangel voting against it [could the donkey that represents the Democratic Party be the perfect mascot for Charlie Rangel?] In remarks that clearly pointed toward the restoration of the military draft under an Obama administration, during a widely ignored Columbia University forum on September 11, 2008, the Democratic candidate said that his job as President would include demanding that the American people recognize an "obligation" for military service. "If we are going into war, then all of us go, not just some," President-elect Barack Obama declared.

In his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy said that America would bear any burden to assure the survival and the success of liberty. He issued a resounding challenge to the American people. By boldly proclaiming that Americans should "ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country," Kennedy encouraged his fellow citizens to commit themselves to national service. Less than two months later, on March 1, 1961, Kennedy established the Peace Corps, which he described as a "pool of trained American men and women sent overseas by the U.S. government or through private institutions and organizations to help foreign countries meet their urgent needs for skilled manpower." [Chabotte] Was this President Kennedy's surreptitious endorsement of conscription or national service? Probably. According to Robert Litan, "Universal service is an idea whose time may not be quite here, but it is coming. For reasons of need, social cohesion, and social responsibility, universal service is a good idea. It could be one of the truly transformative federal initiatives of recent times, perhaps having an even greater impact on American society than the GI bill."

"Our times have been dramatically altered by two defining events: the tragedy of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina," Alan Khazei and Michael Brown observe in their essay, "Uncle Sam Wants You." Arguments for and against government-mandated, nonmilitary service programs are often placed in the context of these two seminal events. While a draft may indeed be far off, some public educational institutions have made community service a prerequisite for graduation. Though by no means a universal national service mandate, this is a clear example of the government's willingness to compel young people to volunteer and has stirred some emotions.

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Khazei and Brown examine particular pieces of legislation that encouraged national service during the 20th century, citing various benefits awarded to veterans who served during World War II. "The most commonly asked question of an 18-year-old should be," according to the writers, "Where will you do your citizen service? The Army or AmeriCorps? The Marines or the National Civilian Community Corps? The Navy or the Peace Corps?" They argue that the U.S. "needs universal, voluntary national service[,] the expectation that everyone should serve and the opportunity for everyone to do so linked to a new GI Bill that dramatically changes the life prospects of those who serve in the military and those who serve in our neediest schools and neighborhoods."

Litan echoes these sentiments in which he correlates the need for national security with a mandatory service program. "Unlike America's past foreign wars," he writes, "the war on terrorism requires a vigilant homeland security effort in addition to an offensive military [and intelligence] campaign abroad…Young people in service, provided they were properly trained, could substantially augment the guards now in place at a wide range of public and private facilities." As an example, Litan cites American ports, where, "only a tiny fraction of incoming containers is examined." He also endorses national service, arguing that it provides a kind of "social glue" that could unite the nation's increasingly diverse populace.

Although the word "volunteer" suggests that service would be optional, the question arises as to whether the United States should institute a mandatory national service program for high school or college graduates and what form that service should take. For instance, in addition to establishing more humanitarian programs like those involving social services, should the government reinstate the military draft? With the nation embroiled in ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, talk of a draft, while dismissed by Washington, has repeatedly surfaced among nervous teenagers and their parents. Many Americans equate the words "national service" with military service, and despite reassurances by the government, many continue to fear the possibility of a draft. With recruitment falling below target numbers and with the prolonged involvement in both Afghanistan and Iraq, could the United States be forced to reinstate conscription?

First, let's agree that nothing beats a 100% volunteer army. An army made up entirely of volunteers, people who are motivated to be there and are there of their own free will, is optimal. Presumably, draftees didn't want to be there because they preferred being at home mooching off their parents. Nevertheless, if there is one thing the armed forces do well, it is routinely transforming ordinary citizens into well-oiled, efficient, disciplined machines. So, what makes you think the military can't take a mama's boy and turn him into a proud, self-sufficient, strong soldier? All it takes is motivation and they soon learn that not only is what they were [unmotivated] not worth having, what they become is something that will put them head and shoulders above their civilian peers. Given the right methods and a free hand, you can turn anybody into a soldier. Another benefit of a draft is that you get to sort the wheat from the chaff. Of course, you don't open elite units to conscripts. Sure, the conscripts can join up with the elites later on, voluntarily, but then they are no longer "conscripts" in the true sense of the word, are they? With this comes the added status from being part of an elite, all-volunteer unit, as opposed to being among the "mixed" units. As a result, volunteer rates for the elites skyrocket and everybody wants to be among the best of the best.

Then there's another benefit that few people ever consider: The benefit to society as a whole. What conscription and the military does is take a bunch of ordinary men and women and turn them into ambitious, strong, confident individuals who have learned to believe in themselves, not because they're told that they're wonderful members of Gaia's big happy family, but because they've proven to themselves and their friends that they are worth counting on. They've learned the difference between the utterly worthless, empty blather of public schoolteachers telling them what wonderful beings they are and learned that prestige, confidence and achievement is something you earn and, more importantly, that it is something they can earn, even if it hurts. A draft takes the potential that everybody has, and extricates it out of the people who didn't know or believe they had it. As a result, society wins. We make better people who would otherwise be clogging up the workforce earning degrees in gender studies and comparative folk dancing and getting overpaid, underworked jobs when they could be out there in society being all they could REALLY be.

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On the other hand, there are those with mixed feelings on whether a draft would work and feel that today's young adult won't have the backbone and steel to go through basic training because today's education doesn't encourage objective thinking or problem solving. Hopefully, by their 20's and 30's most of this has worn off as people mature and learn that they have to work in order to pay the bills. Some believe a draft will cause the overall quality of the military to drop and that society would suffer in the end, not to mention the war effort. Every time there has been a draft, there have been draft riots, draft evaders, and it has created divisions in society. As interesting as it would be to see some of the tattooed, pierced slackers get the haircut, do the pushups, and appreciate the joy of cleaning toilets with toothbrushes, we should keep in mind those graves filled with the mistake of forced mediocrity that conscription forces upon the military.

Our Fore Fathers warned of reckless adventures created by the executive branch. When there is a just cause for which to fight, the sheep dog citizen soldier in our society does rise up to beat back the wolf, but they do it voluntarily. I believe in the warrior ethos, the proud, savage men, who visit death and destruction upon evil men who would harm their hearth and kin. Who kill with one hand, and caress with the other. These amazing men, who voluntarily face the wolf, are the best in the world because they choose the hardest profession on earth, voluntarily. The thing is the Founding Fathers couldn't predict a society in which people are so lazy, self-indulgent and completely devoid of responsibility as the one we currently live in. Our noble ancestors would have had no problem recognizing the danger we're facing now and they would have risen as one to meet it.

Isn't this the longest period we've gone without a military draft? Look at the results. Most young people are somewhat detached from [understanding] what it is to be an American. They take too much for granted, and they just don't engage in the workings of this country. Well, maybe if they were properly taught what it is to be an AMERICAN, not a Mexican-American or an Arab-American or a whatever-American…and if they were taught the history of this country and the great things that were accomplished in our 200+ year history, instead of the revisionist/imperialist American history that they are now taught…they might be more engaged in the workings of this country. Kids aren't taught about Iwo Jima or Gettysburg or Saratoga! But, they sure can tell you what happened in Waco, Texas, Kent State, and Selma, Alabama. What I'm trying to say here is kids aren't taught anything but the bad about America and its history…they are given nothing to be proud of. There could be an exception to this rule though. I've noticed the younger kids [age 12-18] are proud of their older brothers and sisters who wear the uniform and serve. A perfect example is my 13-year-old son's admiration of his older brother who, in a way, I conscripted just three years ago.

"You have two choices son…..continue college or enlist in the military." I couldn't believe I said it and I never dreamed he would take me seriously but, a couple of months later, I found myself on an airplane with my elderly parents, my ten year old, my future daughter-in-law and a whole lot of uncertainty. We were headed to Great Lakes, IL to watch the oldest of my two son's graduate Navy basic training. The thought of seeing him graduate defied all of the conventional wisdom I had accumulated over the years. Aside from there not being any veterans or war heroes in my immediate family, I couldn't even draw upon one patriotic moment from my own childhood! And there I was, sitting alongside 1,100 other families, watching my son march in formation to the amplified staccato beat of snare drummers in an orchestrated procession on to the drill deck. His company performed a passing exercise ending in a new formation that was followed by the Recruit Drum and Bugle Corps adding to the music of the already assembled Navy Band. Given all of the pomp and circumstance, the superb execution of the spirited Souza tunes proved they had practiced for weeks. Nothing prepares a parent for this. As I watched my son, I couldn't help but recall every milestone in his life. He was no longer that snotty nose kid that sucked his thumb and was afraid of the dark and he definitely wasn't that skinny kid I dropped off at the military processing station just a couple of months back.

To be honest, I wasn't really going to enforce my "two choices" statement. I mean, I wasn't crazy about him quitting college after a year and I certainly wasn't going to accept the alternative [mooching off me]. But, my beloved first born, living away from me AND taking orders from someone else? [And yes, I believe that included the proverbial 'marching orders' as well] Life without him was going to take some getting used to. Did I do the right thing?

After spending almost two years away from home, my conscript took his first leave and came home for a visit. Since it was October, his little brother was in school during the day so I made a suggestion to my Sailor. I suggested that he stop by the school one day and eat lunch with his brother. I also suggested that he wear his uniform. He obliged and the wheels were set in motion. Imagine a school cafeteria filled with sixth graders eating lunch. Then imagine a uniformed United States Sailor showing up, unannounced, to have lunch with his little brother. From what I've been told, the look on my youngest son's face, when he realized this Sailor was his brother, was priceless. Being in the Navy has shown my son that there is no limit to what you can do if you put your mind to it. He is now aware that he is twice the man he thought he was, five times what I thought he was and twenty times what his grandparents thought he could be. Even though he was a well-mannered kid before he enlisted, I believe he will be a better person when he gets out of the Navy than he was when he went in.

If our government was serious and responsible about national service, I think they would institute the kind of system that Israel has in place for its citizens - compulsory military training for all youth [except those who are physically or mentally unable, of course]. It would make us a better nation across the board. We wouldn't have any more disasters like post Hurricane Katrina, for example, if the majority of citizens had some idea of preparedness and the competence to react properly in emergencies. Also, it would give the government a chance to recognize and offer incentives to people who show real leadership potential, so that if they desired they could receive additional training. Enlisting to serve active duty would still be voluntary - but with significantly better pay and benefits. That would be a better way to encourage enlistment. Of all the things that I can think of that I don't mind the government raising taxes for, it is military spending, if for no other reason than that it is one responsibility of government that was actually outlined in the Constitution.

Litan sums this matter up with, "America can be the world's superpower, or it can maintain the current all volunteer military, but it probably can't do both. The war in Iraq has shown us many things, the bloody costs of inept leadership, the courage of the average American soldier, and the hunger for democracy among some of the planet's most oppressed people. But, perhaps more than anything, Iraq has shown that our military power has limits. As currently constituted, the U.S. military can win the wars, but it cannot win the peace, nor can it commit for the long term to the stability and security of a nation such as Iraq." You can probably tell by now that I am neither for nor against a military draft and that I do believe we should make some form of national service mandatory. Which begs the question, if you have never served your country, how can you be qualified to vote or lead in the House, the Senate, the Executive Branch or Supreme Court? How can you even be considered a citizen?