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My Recent Op Ed Calling for National Community Service

September 12, 2019

On Sunday, September 8 our local newspaper published this op ed piece I wrote on the need for universal community service:

Looking at the news and social media today, it is increasingly evident that we are no longer the UNITED States of America. The personalized filters on social media that give us only the news we want to read and only those perspectives we agree with makes us increasingly isolated from each other. Our residential, shopping and social patterns also segregate us from those who do not share our economic and educational demographics making it more and more difficult to relate to the lives others are living.   

Looking back at how this socio-economic and racial segregation and resulting political discord evolved over the course of my 72 years, I think its roots can be found in one misbegotten decision: the abandonment of the universal draft and the creation of the volunteer army. In retrospect, the controversy over the conflict in Viet Nam was a missed opportunity for it gave America a chance to define itself as a nation of citizens that cared about each other. In the late 1960s, the war in Viet Nam was tearing our country apart as thousands of idealistic anti-war students took to the street to protest our country’s involvement in a war whose purpose was unclear while thousands of their friends were drafted to fight in that very war. After his election in 1968, President Richard Nixon and Congress rightly perceived that one of the underlying causes of the dissent among college students was the inherent unfairness of the draft. Those who had the good fortune to reside in areas where draft quotas were readily met by volunteers never had to worry about being involuntarily drafted. They could go through their college-aged years without the fear of being conscripted to serve in the military. At the same time, those who resided in areas where few volunteered for the armed forces could expect to be drafted upon graduation or, if they failed to make sufficient progress as undergraduates, drafted immediately. And, as we’ve learned from politicians who came of age during the Viet Nam era, those who had political connections or wealth found ways to game the system by securing deferments or gaining coveted National Guard positions.

In 1969, Congress gave President Nixon the authority to modify the selection method for the draft. His initial “fix”, implemented by Executive Order, was to replace the existing draft system with a lottery whereby those eligible for the draft would have their birthdates assigned a number from 1 to 366. Those with lower numbers would be vulnerable to the draft and those with higher numbers no longer needed to worry. Any males in my age cohort can recall their draft number (I was in the low 300s) and their reaction when that number was revealed.

But the inherent inequities of the system were not addressed by the lottery, particularly by the deferments given automatically to most college students. Two years later, with the Viet Nam conflict winding down, President Nixon abandoned the draft altogether, replacing it with the all-volunteer army, an enterprise that is augmented today by private contractors who provide logistical support and other services that were formerly handled by recruits.

Looking back at the late 1960s and early 1970s, I often ask what would have happened if instead of replacing the draft with an all-volunteer army the President and Congress agreed to replace the draft with two years of voluntary community service to be completed by all citizens before the age of 25. Those who wanted to serve in the armed forces could do so at a time that suited them and thereby meet their community service requirement. Those who wanted to serve their country in ways other than military service could do so by working in understaffed public schools, on federal projects like those undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps or on various community service projects submitted for approval by local and state governments. Under this idea, the two years could be fulfilled upon turning 18 or after college and/or graduate school. This would have appealed to the idealism of the anti-war group by engaging them in the recently launched “War on Poverty” while allowing those who wanted to serve in the military to do so without feeling like they were alone in their commitment to making our country a better place.
From my perspective, this idea of mandatory community service is as viable today as it was in the late 1960s. We could institute this kind of universal service and help address the infrastructure upgrades we need while providing meaningful full-time jobs with benefits to millions of under-employed millennials. In doing so, we might achieve some of the positive benefits of military service where college graduates met and worked collaboratively with farmers, miners, and factory workers from across the country. Where people of all races got to know each other on a personal level. By mandating national service we might provide a way for people across our country from all walks of life to get to know each other, to understand each other, and, once again, become the UNITED States of America.

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