In his State of the Union message, President George W. Bush announced a new volunteer effort dubbed "Freedom Corps." The same month, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Evan Bayh (D-IN) introduced legislation allowing shorter military enlistments coupled to financial incentives. Although both initiatives are admirable half steps, we need a program of universal national service.
Advocating such a policy in the pages of Proceedings may not seem terribly radical. What makes it surprising is that it reflects the sentiment of a growing contingent of downtown Manhattan (read liberal), Ivy League parents—like me—whose kids soon will be graduating from "elite" private schools.
I still do not want the draft reinstituted—at least not in the form it took during the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, there is a good chance that the demands of fighting terrorism abroad and ensuring homeland security will far outstrip current resources. Protecting fragile sites, such as airports, bridges, and power plants, will be labor intensive. Because police forces have insufficient people and funds to do these jobs alone, many others will have to be trained, organized, and disciplined.
Volunteerism might be the answer. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that people are willing to do so. After the post-11 September outpouring of contributions, blood donations, and rescue assistance, volunteering and military enlistments are back at former levels. So, how do we best meet critical national needs?
Requiring virtually every 18 year old to serve two years in some capacity, military or "regimented civilian," would go a long way toward protecting and strengthening our country. Myriad details about universal service must be debated: the nature of service; how much discretion an individual should have in choosing a "branch"; training and compensation; and exemptions. All are issues that deserve serious thought and discussion. But unless we take bold steps to begin the debate, the United States is likely to be ill equipped for the challenges of the coming decade.
Some of those challenges are unintended consequences of the success of all-volunteer armed forces. The most troubling aspect is the increasing and unhealthy "gap" in our society between those who have served in the military and those who have not. Most of our civilian elites—business, academic, professional, and political—have not served, and most do not know anyone of their generation who has. Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen recently worried about "a chasm developing between the military and civilian worlds, where the civilian world doesn't fully grasp the mission of the military, and the military doesn't understand why the memories of our civilians and civilian policy makers are so short, or why the criticism is so quick and so unrelenting."
The vast majority of U.S. senators and representatives have little knowledge of military capabilities and limitations. They simply lack experience: In 1971, 75% of members of Congress had been in the military; today, that figure is 34%. Moreover, it is bound to continue dropping because only 6% of Americans under the age of 65 have ever served in the military.
When the Harvard Crimson asked Harvard students if they supported military action against the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks, 69% answered yes. But the "bad news," as the Crimson put it, was that only 38% of the undergraduates said they were willing to take part in military actions. This is not surprising from a university that has not had a Reserve Officer Training Corps unit on campus since the late 1960s. However, it is sad confirmation of the notion that "other people" should serve.
Universal national service will begin to eliminate the civil-military gap. Young people from every part of society will be exposed to discipline and experience the demands and satisfaction of teamwork. They will provide important services to their nation, bringing alive the ideals of citizenship—and they will learn to live with each other. The military was an early force for racial integration in the United States and one of its great strengths is that it is largely a color-blind meritocracy.
Universal service will provide a larger pool of talent for the military services to better accomplish their increasingly diverse missions. Perhaps most kids facing national service would choose domestic, social-service jobs. Yet many others, having to serve in some way, would volunteer for military units.
Not least, universal service will send an important message to friend and foe alike that we are committed to a long-term war on terrorism. Some may argue that universal national service is too disruptive a message, a point that might have been persuasive before 11 September. Now we need a message that is neither ambiguous nor fleeting—and there is no more convincing a message than a call for universal service.
I wish my sons did not have to grow up in a world where terrorism is a reality. I wish my 11 year old read the sports section rather than looking at before-and-after photos of the latest air strike in Afghanistan. I ache every time they attend a memorial service at school. But this is their world and they understand it. They also know that they can—and should—help make it a better place. The new definition of citizenship should be one that requires universal national service.
Steve Cohen is the chief executive officer of P-3 Ventures in New York.