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Requiring National Service Could Go A Long Way

I am a U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran, though not entirely by choice. One reason I joined the Navy is because I didn’t want to get drafted into the Army.

From just before World War II until 1973, after the Vietnam War, every American male reaching the age of 18 was subject to the draft. That was the way we provided the manpower for our military. Had there had been no draft, I may never have chosen to enlist in the Navy.

What the draft did was to throw together Americans from all regions and walks-of-life into the same basket. I had been raised here, in a relatively sheltered rural, small-town community in Upstate New York. I had never really gotten to know people from El Paso, Texas; Brooklyn, N.Y. or Tulsa, Okla., before serving in the military. I had never really gotten to know someone who was Jewish or Japanese; really poor or really rich; minimally-educated or better-educated–until I went into the Navy. The Navy was the mixing-pot that became my way of finding out who I was as an American.

I recently read an article by the columnist David Brooks which stated: “Real change seems to involve putting bodies from different groups in the same room, on the same team, and in the same neighborhood. That’s national service programs.” That is what the draft was–a national service program. Instead of being in a same group-think, echo chamber–in the military, we got to know and understand each other and experience a true cross-section of America.

A similar thought was expressed in a video lecture I recently watched by the philosopher/theologian Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain. (Sacks died this past year of cancer.) Sacks said that the primary problem we have today is: “Too much of the ‘I’ and too little of the ‘We.'” He then commented that he thought the greatest description of who Americans were, was to be found in the words: “We the People.”

The thoughts of both Sacks and Brooks resonate with me. Neither endorsed a military draft. But I can attest that it was the draft, my serving in the military with fellow Americans, which significantly broadened my views as a citizen of this country.

Today, one of my great disappointments has been the unfulfilled promise that modern communications and social media would somehow make us more informed citizens with a larger world view. Instead, it has given us more echo-chambers where we can shut out voices that don’t see things our way.

How, as Brooks described, do we get more people “in the same room?” I believe we need a mandate of national service. Let our young people, both men and women, serve for a period of time in the national interest. Let them choose between a military and civilian option. But, somehow, we need to expose future generations of Americans to the common purposes and ideals of this country.

We don’t need to call it a “draft.” Call it a “national service requirement” or something else–but we need to get back to it. We need some kind for program to put us in the same room so that we can begin understanding and talking with each other again. Somehow, we have lost that along the way.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.

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