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The case for mandatory military service



How civic duty might heal a divided United States

During his 2017 campaign, French president Emmanuel Macron floated the idea of reinstating a sort of mandatory military service for French citizens. After his election in 2018, his plan was modified into a national service program involving teaching, charity and social work, and healthcare alongside traditional defense and security jobs.

It is difficult to imagine a U.S. presidential candidate in the 2020 primary elections putting forth a platform that would include something similar to Macron’s plan. The suggestion of mandatory military service would likely bring to mind some of the United States’ historical nightmares, like the Vietnam and Korean Wars. In times of relative peace, most people are unlikely to see a reason why the United States should need a mandatory national service program, and understandably so.

However, it is clear that right now American social and economic structures are rapidly changing, becoming more divisive and disheartening than in previous decades. On the tails of one of the most contentious elections ever in 2016, the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, and rising income inequality, American discourse has become darkened by statements such as: “the Great American Experiment has failed.”

Further, alarming civic duty polls by the Pew Research Center indicate that younger adults place less importance on many aspects of citizenship, especially those aspects which older adults describe as “very important” for their role as a good citizen; these include voting, serving on juries, paying the taxes you owe, following the law, participating in the census, and keeping up with governmental and political news.

Mandatory military service might, at first glance, seem like a drastic policy option for addressing social and economic issues.  But several scholars have theorized that it might be exactly what the United States needs.

Robert Litan, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that volunteerism only goes so far in the post 9/11, terror-driven world order. In order to provide “social glue” and address issues like a lack of civic engagement and low literacy levels, and to brighten up the futures of low-income young people, the U.S. should look no further than mandatory military service.

Further, William Galston asserts that the United States’ volunteer-based system for the military and other national service programs have created the notion of “optional citizenship—the belief that being a citizen involves rights without responsibilities and that we need do for our country only what we choose to do.”

Galston’s theory essentially predicts what the Pew Research polls have indicated. U.S. citizens have no skin in the game when it comes to their rights. They ignore their responsibilities and have lost interest in many important aspects of citizenship. Maybe if a citizen knew they had a chance of deporting to fight in a war, they would be more likely to participate in civic life.

The United States has lost its sense of civic duty. The benefits of a national service program would reinvigorate citizen’s communal duty to each other and to the country which grants them their rights. In fact, Galston predicts that without such a feeling of civic duty, a country might be more susceptible to internal and external conflict.

There are many other benefits to a mandatory military or social service program. It would break down racial and socioeconomic barriers, as all U.S. citizens would join various programs of their interest, mixing with fellow citizens which societal structures had kept them from previously.

It could also pose an answer to the growing issue of rising college tuition fees. In exchange for their service, U.S. citizens could receive two years of community college for free. With the money the U.S. would save from having citizens serve in these programs, “free college” would become a more affordable and realistic policy proposal, offering a much-needed compromise between Democrats and Republicans.

The U.S. is also in desperate need of large-scale infrastructure improvements. While serving in the military might not be for everyone, creating a wide range of options including construction jobs, would allow the U.S. to tackle massive projects that are often impossible to coordinate in the private sector.

The United States needs a morale booster. Often, war creates a shared sense of duty that unites a country and puts its social and economic systems back on track. The U.S. has fought many wars in the past decade, but civic duty has waned rather than increased. If Galston’s proposal is correct, the United States could get a morale boost not by fighting more wars, but by making national service a mandatory project for all Americans.

Claire Marie Kuhn is a senior majoring in political science with a minor in Peace Studies. She enjoys long afternoon naps and iced green tea lattes. To talk with her over one of those lattes, contact her at ckuhn1@nd.edu.

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