An opportunity for shared sacrifice

By Hodding Carter and Ronald Goldfarb

As with so many Americans of our generation, we went into military service because that was what you were expected to do. We may have groused at the time, but we are proud of having served our country. It carved a few years out of our lives in the 1950s and '60s, but strengthened our understanding of the country we served and the people with whom we served.

Of course, while public service now seems self-evident to us, it does not to most of our children's generation. It is not that they turn away from duty to the civil society. Millions have chosen the military, of course. Many serve in the government and voluntary service organizations, working among the urban poor and rural landless. A large number tell pollsters they believe in volunteerism. But the idea of public service as a universal duty is another story.

On the campaign trail these days, there are few fresh ideas, and in the wake of the fifth 9/11 anniversary, there are still not enough calls for public sacrifice beyond that made by our troops. National service isn't a new idea. It arises from one of the oldest themes of U.S. history. What does the citizen owe the state? Answer: mandated public service without exemptions.

Tapping patriotism

Mandatory national service could appeal to Americans' natural inclination toward patriotism and provide an antidote to the cynical public attitude that characterizes recent politics. It would bring out the best in young Americans and rekindle a sense of shared national purpose. And it isn't right or left, Democratic or Republican.

The death of the military draft was hailed in the Vietnam War era by liberals and conservatives alike, not necessarily for shared reasons but with shared acclaim. With today's professionalized military, the many are protected; the relative few fight and die in the name of the whole.

The best approach to mandatory national service would be to require every 18-year-old man and woman, and every young immigrant seeking citizenship, to spend 18 months to two years in public service. Their service could be in the military or in the Homeland Security Department, or be in programs similar to President Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, Sargent Shriver's Peace Corps or President Clinton's AmeriCorps - any work experience that is in the public interest.

The first class

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 4 million 18-year-olds who might fill our proposed first class. Some 2.7 million youths graduated from high school from 2004 through 2005. Just under 60,000 are in the military. Others hold jobs, are in school or are in jail. About 17% are unemployed.

There are great costs attributable to this class, economic and others. The cost of public service would be a wise investment. After completing national service, these young people would enter their next phase in life more mature and more knowledgeable about the rich variety of America's peoples and the breadth of the nation's unfinished business.

National service is not a partisan concept. Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record), R-Ariz., has praised Clinton's AmeriCorps program. It also need not be the exclusive province of government. Private-public interest organizations, including churches and other faith-based groups, could qualify as sponsors and providers of public service. Diversity, rather than bureaucratic uniformity, would be encouraged.

But the bottom line would be the reinstitution of a notion as old as the nation. Just as all share in the benefits of freedom, all should share in shoring it up.

Hodding Carter is a professor and former journalist; he served in the Marines and State Department. Ronald Goldfarb is an attorney and author; he served in the Air Force and Justice Department.