By Patrick F. Cannon
When a friend was over the other day, the question of mandatory national service came up. Both of us agreed it would be good idea, one that forced young people of all races, religions and national origins to come together for one year of public service of some kind.
When I was drafted into the Army in 1961, the armed services were the only form of national service; the Peace Corps would come later (and of course it was voluntary). In the two years I served, I lived in close proximity to people of all races, and from all parts of the country. If you’ve seen any World War II movies, you may have noticed that the cast almost always included a Jew, Hispanic, Native American, New Yorker, Southerner, as well as the usual White middle-class fellow from somewhere in Middle America, usually the hero. That’s what my Army looked like, except it did include African-Americans, who served in segregated units until 1948.
Coming from Chicago, and before that Pittsburgh, African-Americans were no mystery to me; my best friend in high school was black. But I can tell you that many of my fellow soldiers had never met a black man, much less lived with one. Imagine that you’re a young, largely uneducated kid from some remote valley in Appalachia and suddenly you find yourself living next to not only young black men, but strange sounding fellows from Brooklyn? In the four barracks I occupied in my two years of service, I served with all of them and more.
There was no draft lottery in 1961; unless you had an exemption, you were likely to get drafted. If I had been going to college full time; or been married with children; or had flat feet or a bum ticker, I might have avoided the draft. Quite a few young men opted to join the National Guard instead. They only served for six months, but were subject to being recalled to active duty, which many discovered to their dismay during the horrible years of Viet Nam. And, of course, I served with many young men who actually enlisted for three years, some intending to make the Army their career.
Over my two years of service, which ended in 1963 before Viet Nan heated up, I lived with an average of 200 men. All, except for sergeants, lived in open common areas. We showered and shaved together, and the toilets were in open areas. Privacy? Not a chance. Yet, during all of this, I cannot recall a single physical fight in a barracks. Arguments? Sure.
While not complete, a list of my Army friends would include a farmer from Indiana; a banker from Queens (New York); a college educated son of a Southern Illinois blacksmith, who planned to carry on the family’s business; the college dropout son of the export manager of the Ford Motor Company; the heir to a rich tobacco farmer in North Carolina (who sent him cash every month); and a black kid from Chicago’s South Side, who had enlisted to escape gang life.
The likelihood of a young man or woman from Winnetka, or Scarsdale, or Beverly Hills, or Shaker Heights, having to live and work with the kind of people I did in the Army is remote. They will graduate from elite public or private high schools and go on to Ivy League or other elite colleges, and come to believe that their world is the world as it should be. They will be like Pauline Kael, the late film critic for that journal of the upper middle classes, the New Yorker, who was shocked when Richard Nixon was elected president, since she knew no one who had voted for him. Substitute Donald Trump for Nixon.
Would it open young minds to have served for a mandatory year with young people of different backgrounds from different parts of the country? I believe it would. Some would choose the military, but most would likely choose some other form of national service. There would be no exemptions, other than medical; and no favoritism.
In 1945, there were some 16 million Americans – mostly young men – in the military, out of a population of 140 million. When they returned to civilian life,, they created the most prosperous society in the history of the world. They swelled the ranks of civic, veteran and social organizations. They worked together to build and even create communities. What they learned in the military – that victory only comes with common effort – they transferred to civilian life.
Regrettably, the civic and fraternal organizations that thrived after World War II are now largely on life support. “Us” is now the “other.” You have only to look at our politics to see the effects of this national estrangement. National service might not be the only path to a better understanding among races and classes, but it would be a start.
Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon