By Patrick F. Cannon
I first set foot on British soil on November 11 in the early 1980s. I was enroute to India for a meeting, and decided to break the trip by spending a few days in London to see the sights. I took a train from Heathrow which left me off in a tube (subway) station just a couple of blocks from my hotel.
The first thing I saw when I emerged from the station was an elderly gentleman dressed in a red uniform selling poppies. November 11 was for many years called Armistice Day, for it was on that day in 1918 that World War I hostilities ceased. Since we managed to have World War II since then, it came to be called Remembrance Day in the UK, and Veteran’s Day here. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I saw a photo of the new King Charles III placing a wreath at London’s Cenotaph, the memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate those who had died in World War 1.
The man who sold me the poppy was, I discovered later, a Chelsea pensioner, a resident of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a retirement and nursing home for British Army veterans; thus the red unform. Selling poppies is still a tradition in the UK; here, not so much, since the American Legion, which sold them, has declined in membership, along with so many other volunteer organizations.
While originally meant for those who had served in the war, the day now honors all veterans, including me. I managed to avoid shooting wars, although I was in the Army during both the Berlin Wall (1961) and Cuban Missile (1962) crises. I was drafted, and served the required two years in France and the Mojave Desert. After basic training and signal school in Georgia, I can’t say my service was in any way burdensome. But it was worthwhile in many ways.
Why worthwhile? The draft ended in 1973, although young men are still required to register when they turn 18. Sometime in the mid-1970s, I wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune calling for its return, but in a different form. Instead of just military service, draftees could opt for a variety of ways to serve their country for one or two years. The Peace Corps was mentioned, but so were things like the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which brought unemployed young men together in camps to improve the National Parks and do other needed public works.
One of the reasons the country is now so divided is simply that our young people are segregated by class, income and education. My close friends in the Army – in just two years – included a blacksmith’s son from rural Illinois; one from New Jersey, whose father was the export manager for the Ford Motor Company; the son of a wealthy tobacco farmer from North Carolina; a black kid from Chicago who had enlisted to escape the gang culture; a banker from Long Island; and even a distant cousin of the Kennedy’s. Education level ranged from near illiteracy to a master’s degree in biology (strangely, the Army in its mysterious way decided he would make a good cook!).
I think one year of national service would be enough. If the “draftee” opted for the military, that would be sufficient time to go through basic training and a specialist school. After the year was up, these young people (of both sexes by the way) would then be required to serve a term in the National Guard or reserves. The armed services would still be primarily volunteer forces. Everyone who does national service would receive educational benefits.
Would the young person destined for Harvard benefit from serving with someone who was destined to be a plumber or truck driver? And vice versa? Most would. Some of course wouldn’t. In my case, I wouldn’t be the person I am today – more than 60 years later – were it not for being forced to spend two years learning about people and places I hadn’t known existed. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to go from Lake Forest to Harvard to Wall Street with a detour to a barracks in Appalachia. Maybe the young lady from New York’s upper east side wouldn’t see the “other” as quite so deplorable. And Veteran’s Day might have a whole new meaning.
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon
4 thoughts on “National Service?”
We donated to a veteran distributing poppies this summer in Door County. Not sure if it was a special occasion other than a fund raiser, but we were happy to see it.
In today’s me culture it’s debatable whether there exists sufficient idealism to sustain a universal program of national service. Would our race hustlers claim it was a version of forced labor? Would progressive lawyers sue, arguing it discriminated against low income people? Would others protest that the service should be voluntary ( in which case the concept would fail, as few are inclined to volunteer these days)? Then there are those who might use the program to extend government control even further into private lives. But I really like the idea, as it could foster a common national purpose and help counter the splintered divides that Marxist identity politics have created. It’s well past time for a JFK revival. We need to find common ground as a country, and not have the White House issuing talking points to defend Joe Biden during Thanksgiving dinner discussions.
I myself did two years of civilian work in lieu of military service to satisfy a draft requirement. Paid minimum wage, I taught English in a GED program run by Goodwill Industries in Pittsburgh. I can’t say it opened a new world of lower class life, as I basically grew up in that world. But aside from providing experience, it did give me a sense of having given something to others who might have benefited from it. Everyone should pay something, whether time or talent, toward the obligation they have for being American. In a curios way, contributing actually emphasizes one’s independence.
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The reasons against it are also the reasons for it. I think both of us rose through our own merits (and experience).
Most certainly. We also grew up in an age when bankers, plumbers, steel workers, doctors, garbage men and musicians all lived in the same neighborhood, if not the same block. There was the GI Bill, but not until after LBJ did there exist the array of government social programs that persist to this day to “level the playing field.” The Peace Corps, AmeriCorps VISTA, and National Teachers Corps still exist to some extent, so a framework is more or less in place if Congress were to agree on national service. College students still show idealistic inclinations, though they are often channeled in areas like the climate, anti-discrimination and various rights. I wonder how many would willingly take a year off from studies and parties to serve the country, and if the colleges would want to forego the tuition.
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I loved the Malcolm Gladwell piece that claimed Princeton had so much dough they really didn’t need to charge tuition!