In a recent column, Michael Swickard encourages young people to consider military service as a career. I do not disagree with him in principle or in practice. For I do not discourage anyone from considering a career with redeeming social value, and I recognize the need for a professional military of volunteers. However, I do not want to perpetuate an all-volunteer military.
An all-volunteer military separates those who make sacrifices to serve the country or the public – I include all members of police and fire departments, and most educational, medical, social service and pastoral professionals – from those who make few or no such sacrifices. I believe that all residents have an obligation to serve this country because their service benefits them, their communities, and this country. So I want not only a restoration of the draft, but also the establishment of a national service for those not drafted.
Arguments for national service are invariably complex and unavoidably controversial because they involve many economic, political and social issues. At least for now, I want to address only some of the social issues, mainly the fraying of the bonds which have united us as Americans, and the role which national service can play in reweaving them.
A society of enclaves
If we ever were a cohesive society – we never were – we now are not one. Increasingly, we are a society of social and cultural enclaves, and affinity or interest groups, in an ever more diverse populace. Most people admit not only divisiveness in Washington between Democrats and Republicans, the latter aided and abetted by tea partiers; but also rancor everywhere between the political parties; between haves and have-nots; between whites and non-whites; between straights and GLBTs; at Muslims in New York, Tennessee, and Florida; and at Hispanics mainly in the Southeast and Southwest.
In this societally corrosive context, many people yearn for reconciliation and amalgamation of some sort.
Myths die hard, and the myth of the melting pot also dies hard. The various minority movements in the second half of the twentieth century made it obvious that previous efforts to acculturate others into a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant ethos had failed. But the myth, with its presumption of hegemony and entitlement, lives on as a cultural relic, at least in some backwaters, in the code words “real Americans.” Demographic realities demand, not a reactionary effort to revive a moribund myth of cultural homogeneity, but a liberating effort to replace it with a vibrant myth of accommodation of cultural diversity.
We need the myth of the frying pan. Instead of the smooth, bland uniformity of the soufflé, we need the lumpy, spicy variety of the omelet.
Schools and the military
We have two institutions that enabled the myth of the melting pot in the past and can enable the myth of the frying pan in the future. We must recognize the need to redefine their purposes from acculturation to accommodation.
The first melting pot was the public schools on the Eastern seaboard. As large numbers of immigrants arrived in the last three decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century, educators developed a curriculum aiming to acculturate them to American life and the dominant ideal of an American identity. (For example, young boys were taught baseball to discourage them from playing soccer.)
However, shortly after mid-century, educators recognized the changing realities of the country’s demographics. They realized the impossibility and inaptness of a WASP-centric curriculum, diluted or displaced it, and supplemented it with, or substituted, a smorgasbord of culturally diverse materials. These efforts at multiculturalism fell from fashion and were discredited and demoted with the decline in education.
The new fashion abandons focus on the humanities, which can unite people, and augments focus on mere literacy and numeracy, which cannot. But the aims of multiculturalism, in accord with the myth of the frying pan, were the right ones. If we could and would repair, develop and deliver a proper, robust and diverse curriculum in the humanities – in particular, restoring history, literature, civics or government, and the arts, and adding economics – public schools could become agents of accommodation.
The second melting pot was the military services that blended professionals and conscripts for the Second World, Korean, and Vietnam Wars. The story of military service by men and women of all races and religions, from all economic and social backgrounds, and from all places is one of America’s great narratives. But we forgot both the story and its moral.
We did so in ending the draft in response to middle-class resistance to the Vietnam War. But we did so for the wrong reason. We decided that the draft was wrong only after we decided that the war was wrong and did not want middle-class whites to die in it. By turning to an all-volunteer military, we enlisted young men and women from long-time military families mainly in the South or encouraged disadvantaged young men and women from anywhere and everywhere to serve. So, according to the myth of the frying pan, the military achieves diversity – at long last, gays and lesbians will soon be able to serve openly – and achieves its benefits on a small scale.
But an all-volunteer military has had unforeseen but unfortunate consequences.
First, the separation of a professional military from the civilian populace has enabled elected officials, especially presidents, to commit troops to hostilities costly in lives and resources without securing the consent and commitment of the people. As such, wars have become unpopular, officials have deflected criticism by invoking support for the troops on the fallacious logic that, if people do not support the war, they do not support the troops. The ability to use an all-volunteer military without accountability has, willy-nilly, made it a hidden cause of political division, not social cohesion.
Second, an all-volunteer military diminishes the concept of citizenship and segregates the commitment to the country’s survival and welfare. Support for the troops comes easy to people eager to say thanks to those who spare them the dirty work of sacrifice for their country. The hypocrisy and selfishness of these parasites of patriots – not to mince words – appear in the persistently inadequate support given to returning service personnel and their families who, in many cases, suffer grievously for their patriotism.
Third, an all-volunteer military drawn largely from lower-middle and lower classes partly explains why many federal and state politicians as well as most corporate moguls have lost touch with ordinary people. Unlike past elites raised to accept public service as a duty, especially during wartime, today’s rich and powerful serve themselves, not their country, in part because they have no sense of country.
They know mostly privilege, pampering and protection in up-scale neighborhoods, gated communities, private schools, expensive colleges, second homes, country clubs, overseas vacations and corporate suites; and come to believe themselves entitled to them. They avoid military service; lack contact with people of different kinds, backgrounds, and experiences; and then misunderstand or ignore the interests of the people whose lives they affect. (A few still act out of a social conscience in, say, The Peace Corps and Teach for America.)
To recover the benefits of social cohesion on a national scale means two things. One, a return to a draft. All would be eligible: men and women, whole and handicapped, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, legal and illegal residents – any who permanently live in, benefit from, or owe taxes to America. Only some would be inducted.
Two, for the rest, a program of national service. Dropouts, high school and college graduates, green-card residents, immigrants – all, depending on their competence, would become “national interns” in schools, hospitals, government agencies, companies doing public-sector contract work, among other possibilities. For young adults especially, such internships could provide the rewards of broadened social and vocational experience, including on-the-job learning and career networking, and encourage further education.
These two options, either military or national service, would enable residents to develop or fulfill an obligation to serve this country; encourage all residents to build a better country; and help unite Americans, however diverse we are and however more diverse we shall become.
Michael L. Hays (Ph.D., English) is a retired consultant in defense, energy and environment; former high school and college teacher; and continuing civic activist. His bi-monthly Saturday column appears in the Las Cruces Sun-News; his bi-monthly blog, First Impressions & Second Thoughts, appears on the intervening Saturdays at firstimpressionssecondthoughts.blogspot.com.