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What sort of universal service will candidates embrace?
11 December 2007
by Ross Mackenzie

With the candidates oiling up for the primaries, an opportunity is at hand for serious debate about universal service.

It's the notion that in some capacity everybody should serve the nation - each doing his share in give-back service, civilian or military. Service lies at the root of philanthropy and volunteerism throughout our adult lives. It is deemed so important that churches instill it in our young and some high schools require it - enabling the college-bound to pad their applications with testimonials about their commitment to helping others.

And of course the ultimate give-back is service in the nation's armed forces. Yet even in time of war (aren't we at war against global terror?), less than 1 percent of the American population is on active duty or in the Reserves or National Guard.

In the wake of 9/11, President Bush missed perhaps the ripest opportunity ever to galvanize the nation's young adults by rallying them to the service ramparts. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said we could fight the jihadists with minimal forces. He fired Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki for suggesting that securing Iraq would require 400,000 ground troops. So rather than issuing a call to service, President Bush told Americans to go on and live their lives as before - and they did.

Democratic Sen. Thomas Dodd, according to a wire-service report, "is issuing a call for community service that aims to create the first generation in which everyone serves their country." How? By "making community service mandatory for all high-school students, doubling the size of the Peace Corps by 2011, and expanding the AmeriCorps national service program to 1 million participants by the end of his presidency." That's mandatory volunteerism. What's lacking? A military component.

Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton wants to create a national academy to train public servants, saying: "I'm going to be asking a new generation to serve. I think just like our military academies, we need to give a totally all-paid education to young men and women who will serve their country in a public service position."

The nation does require young men turning 18 to register for the draft; the Selective Service System has 13.5 million on the books right now. Yet over the summer, so vast is the disconnect with the military, Selective Service bagged plans to test its draft machinery for the first time since 1998 - citing lack of money and staff.

Compulsory universal service as outlined here would accomplish those things - and more - far better than a draft. It would help undo rampant selfishness and meism. And it would institutionalize service, both military and civilian, as central to the wellness of the country's soul.

So (because pure volunteerism demonstrably isn't cutting it) mandatory volunteerism. Compulsory (that is, no exceptions) universal service, with a front-end military component. Required give-back and pulling of one's weight to keep America the land of the free.