September 8, 2003

Call to Service

By Kellie Lunney

As the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks approaches and the U.S. military remains embroiled in conflict overseas, the role of national service in a democracy is as relevant as ever. In a new book, United We Serve: National Service and the Future of Citizenship, academics, lawmakers and former government officials engage in a vigorous debate about compulsory service for citizens, the reinstatement of the military draft and how the government can harness the patriotism that swept through the American public after the attacks.

"Why shouldn't citizens be required to give something to their country in exchange for the full range of rights to which citizenship entitles them?" asks Robert Litan, vice president and director of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, in an essay supporting the idea of mandatory service. Because, rebuts Bruce Chapman, president and founder of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, the idea of coercing young people to enlist in something "fails militarily, morally, financially and politically."

Litan argues that universal service would enable young people to spend a year working in areas related to homeland security—such as law enforcement, immigration and emergency response—possibly inducing them to pursue careers in such areas. Chapman, while acknowledging the importance of service, rejects "bureaucratizing" it, and instead suggests teaching young people in school "real—that is, voluntary—service" to inspire them to participate in their communities.

The debate over mandatory universal service is followed by a discussion of another concept based on coercion—the military draft. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., advocates a return to the era of the citizen soldier in a controversial Dec. 31, 2002, op-ed for The New York Times, republished in United We Serve. Rangel, a veteran of the Korean War, argues that the armed forces include a disproportionate number of minorities and the poor. A return to a lottery-based system for military service "will help bring a greater appreciation of the consequences of decisions to go to war," Rangel writes.

But former Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, in a separate essay, denounces Rangel for playing the "race and class warfare cards" in an attempt to build public opposition to the conflict in Iraq. Weinberger concludes that trained and willing recruits are much more effective soldiers than draftees.

An analysis of modern national service would not be complete without a discussion of AmeriCorps, the volunteer program begun in 1994, which dispatches young people to communities across the country to teach, build low-income housing and provide disaster relief to needy areas in exchange for small stipends. The program, which is facing funding cuts in Congress, has attracted 200,000 participants since its inception.

In United We Serve, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once an ardent critic of the program, talks about his conversion to enthusiastic supporter and calls for an expansion of AmeriCorps. Former President Bill Clinton, who launched the program, contributes his thoughts on how it has worked.

The impact of Sept. 11 on national service is a theme underlying several of the essays in United We Serve. Theda Skocpol, director of the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University, concludes that without a resurgence of the kind of traditional, grassroots volunteer organizations that started in the early 1800s and thrived until the 1960s—when, she writes, "civic life was radically reorganized in a much more elitist and managerial direction"—the sense of community that Americans felt after Sept. 11 will go unrealized.

Americans were more engaged in civic life at the local level prior to the 1960s, Skocpol contends, because the federal government simply did not have the capacity to mobilize communities. So, during World War I and World War II, for example, federal officials had to rely on leaders of organizations such as the Red Cross, the YMCA and women's groups to galvanize their members to contribute to the war effort. Now we have "professionally managed" civic organizations that are well run, but have the unfortunate effect of excluding ordinary Americans from participation, Skocpol contends.

Skocpol's essay suggests that translating the patriotic spirit rekindled by Sept. 11 into constructive national service will require organizational innovations and new public policies, all of which must be designed to empower local communities. The idea of empowerment as a form of service finds one of its purest expressions in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, writes Charles Cobb Jr., a senior writer and diplomatic correspondent for

The southern civil rights movement, Cobb says, "is best understood as a movement of community organizing rather than one of protest." The service to which leaders of the movement committed enabled the black community "to find its own voice," and to cultivate leadership from within the ranks, Cobb writes. The result was a mass of people from different backgrounds with common interests and a sense of empowerment who effected lasting social change.