Institute 14-month (minimum), universal public service (military, health-care service, infrastructure construction, or emergency services)
Men of my generation expected to deal with The Draft. Many were looking for the loopholes, but most served to some degree. It is also true that, other than periods of real, hot war, The Draft – in “peacetime” – was an anomaly in this country. However, I do not think that The Draft per se warped or harmed us. The wars did, but not service in itself. Rather, as in the case of Denmark and Switzerland, I think that public service is vital to the nation, important to citizenship, and useful to the individual. That is, it can be important and useful if directed at important purposes.
There are plenty of good reasons to object to the military component of such service, and useful alternative service must be offered. Although there is no reason that military assets should not be used for emergency service, there should be a trained component to take a lead role in, for instance, fire-fighting, chemical spills, earthquake rescue, and so on.
None of these component forces would replace Fire Department personnel, hospital or EMT staff, construction companies, linemen, or other related service specialists. Members of the federal service organizations would be available for extreme situations or would be located in areas where normal services are lacking, such as many instances of rural health care. On the other hand the training associated with this service would make “graduates” more employable or trainable.
In addition there are many public purposes, where the “bottom line” does not promote private action. At some point elected government should be able to underwrite action without having to live with “cost-plus-profit” contracts or cost overruns that were easily predicted by an experienced estimator. In fact, where monopoly or market-sharing arrangements exist, a public service force alternative could actually inject “market forces” into the mix.
Moreover, there is a long list of vital infrastructure-related projects for which no level of government can find sufficient funds. So, yes – this is a “cheap labor” scheme, too. There are a lot of Catch-22s in this category, where one cannot find the money to do something, until benefit is shown; but we cannot show benefit, until we fund the activity. As an example from Point # 1 of the 15-Point Program: Construction of two-track, high-speed railroad systems will reduce delays and accidents, which reduces associated costs, making rail freight and passenger service more attractive. The Catch-22 is that rail traffic is currently unattractive, because costs are high and delays are common, so we cannot justify the investment due to lack of a strong market.
Another good example comes from Point # 4 of the 15-Point Program. Private companies and corporations almost always whine about the costs of environmental safeguards and regulations. Except for the actual industry segment that manufactures pollution-control equipment, or service-providers for environmental rehabilitation, most businesses say that such controls simply reduce their bottom line. OK. Let’s involve those of us who consider such controls and rehabilitation to be important to ourselves and to society at-large.
The suggested 14-month minimum should apply to every service, except the military. The specialized skills, and the associated training costs, of military service seem to demand a longer term of service. I suggest 36 months. On the other hand, if a member of another branch of the public service wants to remain an employee of this type for a longer term, then I suggest additional 12-month contracts with a maximum of two re-enlistments. Members could then be eligible for possible employment in a training or leadership capacity.
Another logical extension of this approach is service in the traditional National Guard. Training and experience is covered by the public service commitment. The other elements of Guard service would be the same as now, except that Guard members would not serve in foreign wars.
Why do I suggest 14 months for the basic commitment? The first two months would consist of some equivalent to “Basic Training” in the military. Content would depend on the type of service, but all should include some level of Physical Training; a refresher or primer on U.S. political theory and history; and some basic material concerning such subjects as personal finances, taxes, birth control, teamwork, and so on. At this point in life, young people are almost universally dealing with such subjects, which gives the lessons somewhat more cogency than they have in the high school classroom. Specialized training would be ongoing throughout the service term, but would also be connected, as often as possible, to the actual work of the chosen service.
This time around, Universal Public Service should, of course, include women. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be universal, would it? In fact I think that this point is so obvious, that I see no need to elaborate.
Many people will regard such required service as involuntary servitude. I suggest, rather, that it is an opportunity to “discover oneself” under moderately controlled conditions, in which the majority of the workday would be spent in constructive activities. I am definitely not suggesting the sequestration and indoctrination of adolescents. Secondary school should be the time for the family and the local community to imprint values and ideas that reflect their orientation. Our laws practically define the situation in that way. At the approximate age of 18, however, these mores have either taken root or not, and the individual is essentially formed. At that point, though, the young adult often wanders into Life – many lacking skills, confidence, direction, and support.
If this sounds somewhat like a U.S. Army recruitment advertisement, it merely corroborates the psychological insights of the military establishment. If anything, they understate the situation of many of our youth, because they are looking for a certain segment of youth. They want a group that is not “lost”, but one that is not too self-confident, either. In this proposal, we are, of course, looking after the interests of the nation, rather than just the military component.
OK – where’s the carrot that we can actually see and taste? Per Point # 3 of the 15-point program – “Provide fully-funded public education through two years of college, including related child-care, when necessary” – the public service component can either start at high school graduation or at the end of the first two years of college. Either way, the two-year guarantee of support for college is available. After service, additional college support should be awarded – perhaps two more years for the 14-month commitment, plus one year more of college support for each additional year of service. The 3-year military commitment, for instance, could guarantee four additional years of college support.
I do not see this project as an “easy sell” to the affected age-group. One problem is partially that we old-timers tend to see our service colored by the context: World War II vets had an important role in a vital and popular contest; Korean War vets tend to see a lack of support from the government; Viet Nam vets are often bitter about their experience. Many vets who were not subjected to combat saw their service time as wasted years. We have tended to teach our children, according to our experience, as is always the case.
I was one of those of the non-combat category, but I was intensely affected by my experience. I see it now as highly formative, and I value it. I should add that it taught me anti-military lessons as much as anything else, but it was an important phase for me. If it could have involved one of the service alternatives described above, it would have been even more valuable to me.
Particularly now, with infrastructure crumbling, with national purpose disintegrating, with a neo-imperialist war (Iraq) unravelling; we need to rededicate ourselves to – as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg – “the great task remaining before us … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth”. Public service with good purpose – and good leadership – can help to restore and strengthen our democracy and our true principles.