Can a National Service Requirement Heal the American Partisan Divide?
Nils Peterson | June 2021
(Left to right) A Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C.; a US Army soldier communicates with his squad during training maneuvers.
n an era of hyperpartisanship in the United States, particularly in the public sphere, dutiful citizens look to find ways to restore civility and increase trust between fellow Americans. One argument for achieving this goal is the imposition of compulsory military or national service.
Mandating military or national service, however, would not produce the desired effect of civilizing the politically fractured United States and should therefore not be implemented. The term “civilizing” in this context refers to restoring public norms of decency, not to be confused with ameliorating political disagreements over contentious contemporary issues.
While other potential reasons to adopt compulsory national service programs exist, most prominently during times of existential war, the schism of the American electorate appears to be the prime problem that national service might aim to fix, since such a program would bring individuals from all walks of life into prolonged contact with one another’s values and viewpoints. In theory, this would lead to the development of mutual respect between such persons via the institution of military service.
Throughout his recent book A Time to Build, social critic Yuval Levin beats the drum of rebuilding trust in our institutions as a means to renew civility in the United States. His argument rings true but remains focused on those societal institutions, from the federal government down to the family unit, that already exist. Tossing the new institution of a compulsory national service program into the societal stew, however, will still not help civilize the United States.
Looking to Israel
The nation of Israel compels three years of military service for men and two for women upon turning 18 years of age, with certain exceptions. One such exception for ultra-Orthodox Jews became a central point of controversy that led to protests in 2018. Far from being a magical genie’s solution to the lack of civility in politics, compulsory military or national service creates additional societal tension points about who may be exempted from service and for what purpose. At the time of this writing, four Knesset elections have taken place since 2019, with the potential for a fifth in the near future. Israel is clearly experiencing political polarization and gridlock, similar to that in the United States, a gridlock that proponents of mandatory national service have argued would be alleviated by such a program.
War as a Source of Division
Since the start of this century, the United States has found herself embroiled in controversial wars in the Middle East. The involvement of American troops in the 2003 invasion of Iraq struck anti-war activists as a deadly and poor policy decision that, for some, constituted the acts of an immoral imperial power. However, supporters of the war viewed it as the correct foreign policy decision to protect the United States and remove Saddam Hussein, who allegedly harbored weapons of mass destruction, from power.
Suppose mandatory military or national service existed during this period. In that case, one may imagine protests taking place, similar in scale to the Vietnam War, against what, in essence, would have been a draft. One might even argue that the Vietnam War protests were the reflection of a broader cultural rift widening in the US at the time, between traditionalists and progressives. Who’s to say our present cultural rift will not result in a similar if not more pronounced outburst?
This example does not serve to pass judgment on the merits of America’s wars in the Middle East, but rather to emphasize that a similar culturally divisive situation could arise once again in the future. On such a contentious occasion, any progress made towards restoring the norms of public decency via a mandatory service program would become the source of bitter controversy, releasing a vile of putrid vitriol into the American public discourse.
Furthermore, to borrow from the late Professor Benedict Anderson, a nation “is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”1 That is to say, there is no definitional reason why nation-states engender the loyalty they currently enjoy. Producing responsible citizens who feel loyalty towards their country means allowing them to express their wish to better the nation in unique ways, such as social or business entrepreneurship opportunities, not via mandatory national service programs.
For instance, predominantly young Freedom Riders served the nation in the 1960s, though not always seen that way at the time, by peacefully fighting to end segregation in the United States.2 Would this be considered an acceptable activity under a mandatory national service program? The answer would most certainly be no, and the societal progress such protests help to bring about would be diminished.
Beyond the practical problems of mandatory national service, the spirit of interpersonal connection that it fosters does retain a kernel of truth. New York Times contributor David Brooks argues that combating loneliness and division necessitates local connection with the community. On a national scale, systematic local engagement initiatives would be a useful strategy to employ to help unify the politically divided United States.
What’s more, as every parent has experienced, forcing one’s offspring to complete certain unpleasant chores may result in a disgruntled, unmotivated child. Demanding that individuals perform a period of mandatory service, which many may view as a months- or years-long chore, does not create a motivated group of participants or invite success.
Providing incentives for service programs post-college, like Teach for America, is likely the best way to proceed. The freedom of choice to serve and engage is why such actions can heal a divided nation. A heavy-handed mandate from on high to serve the nation will likely not achieve its goal of civilizing the United States and making her citizens appreciate the diversity of thought necessary for democracy to flourish. Therefore, the United States should not implement a compulsory military or national service program but rather provide incentives for individuals to choose to walk those paths voluntarily.