Could National Service Bridge Our Partisan Divides?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Stanley A. McChrystal, the former U.S. general, just wrote a piece for us calling for “a service year [that] would teach young Americans tolerance and restore civic responsibility.” (Presumably that service would be compulsory, but he doesn’t say so explicitly.) Money quote from McChrystal:

Presidents since Washington have summoned Americans to serve their country in times of crisis—Washington in the Revolution; Lincoln in the Civil War; FDR in the Great Depression; Kennedy in the Cold War; Johnson in the War on Poverty; Clinton to strengthen community and access to college; and Bush after 9/11. National service and civic engagement are old ideas, but they are in need of renewal. It’s entirely feasible for the United States to create 1 million service-year positions each year by the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 2026. We should do it.

This reader is onboard:

I agree wholeheartedly with McChrystal. As a veteran, I am flummoxed by the level of political vitriol some people hold. I served next to men and women from all kinds of backgrounds—the children of missionaries with a loose grasp of pop culture, farm kids, young people who’d been homeless before the military, children of hippies rebelling against their parents, people from the island territories, children of influential families, people with political ambition, Muslims, Mormons, atheists, socialists, libertarians, you name it.

We had lots of fascinating discussions on guard shifts in the wee hours of the morning. Our differences were no obstacle to the mission. We worked together regardless. Indeed, we benefited from a variety of perspectives. And we had each other’s backs when our lives were on the line in a war zone.

But I came home to find some people with this notion that their political adversaries were their enemy, that someone with a different perspective must be disloyal to the country, and actively working to undermine it. I just don’t get it.

A few other readers, however, dissent over the idea:

The idea that mandatory national service will bring people together is just not supported by the experience of other countries that have it.

Austria is one of the few developed countries with mandatory national service. Their latest election was between the Green Party and a party with neo-Nazi roots. Greece has mandatory service too, and their politics are also now dominated by a far-left party with an openly neo-Nazi party in the wings. Israel has mandatory national service, and is a poster-child for divisive politics. Singapore has mandatory national service, and it’s a program that the government uses to quash dissent and enforce conformity to the party line.

Of course, most countries that require service aren't developed countries at all, but are third-word dictatorships. America is fundamentally about freedom, and taking away peoples’ freedom to work as they choose will only corrode our belief in American values further.

This next reader is more critical:

This is a horrible idea. Why is it that people who always want a smaller government are completely fine with having said government reach into people’s lives and affect them in the most personal way possible?

First of all, the Millennial generation already has one of the highest rates of volunteerism of any past generation. They are already out there getting things done. It isn’t the 20 year olds who are standing on the GOP platform calling immigrants rapists and murderers. It isn’t the 20 year olds who plunged us into two wars that wrecked havoc on our nation. It isn’t 20 year olds who are plunging that nation into massive debt.

Pay them a modest stipend? Laughable. There are currently 27 million people between that ages of 18 to 24. If we take a rough guess and say they are equal in each year, that is about 3.85 million in each year group. The number of federal workers is, currently, about 2.6 million. Do you seriously think you can more than double the federal workforce? Even if we brought on only two million each year and paid them $20,000 a year, that adds $400 billion to the U.S. budget.

What about command and control? These volunteers need to do something and have some supervision, which means more full-time government workers. I would hazard a guess and say you need one full time for every 20 volunteers, if not more. That means adding another 100,000 federal workers, as well as creating a possible new department. I’d say they would be paid an average of $55,000 a year, costing another $5.5 billion.

And what are these two million people going to do exactly? Probably displace workers that are currently paid now or get paid their “stipend” to do volunteer work that is already done for free.

This idea is less than worthless. It adds to federal power, adds to the federal debt, and costs young people their time for little reward.

Disagree with that reader? Thoughts about national service in general? Drop us a note. Update from a long-time reader, Andrew:

Hope you’ve been well! I wanted to chime in on the national service issue in response to the reader who assumed any such program would be a federal boondoggle. From my reading, the reader’s objections are essentially threefold:

  1. Any such program would create a vast new federal payroll.
  2. With the new federal employees would come a new supervisory bureaucracy.
  3. At any rate, because Millennials volunteer at a higher rate than other generations, the amount of good a national service program would achieve is blunted by Millennials’ natural magnanimity.

Point 1 is pretty valid, but the other two points make some unwarranted assumptions. And I hope that by addressing the other two points, I can convince your reader that it’s a worthy, if expensive, investment.

Regarding point 2, the conclusion that we’d need to create a series of latter-day alphabet agencies to manage the activities of the volunteers is premature. Most federal involvement in volunteership nowadays comes in the form of public-private partnerships. In my time as a legal aid attorney in Los Angeles, I’ve come into contact with an astonishing number of excellent community nonprofits who nevertheless lack grassroots-level manpower to accomplish everything they want to. A nationwide service program could partner with such nonprofits to vastly increase the reach and effectiveness of the services they provide.

Indeed, such a public-private partnership would probably be the best way to conduct such a program, in order to avoid the duplication of services, tap into local reservoirs of knowledge, and, as I’ll explain further in the next point, to promote authentic cross-cultural understanding, empathy, and hopefully solidarity.

On point 3, if you dig into what the Case Foundation Millennial Impact Report actually says (PDF), the picture of Millennial volunteership isn't as rosy as the reader makes it sound. The relevant pages of the report are 17-19. In them, it becomes clear that the Case Report is organized predominately or even exclusively around promoting company-sponsored volunteer projects. It is not a study which is intended to describe the volunteer habits of Millennials outside of work.

Not all volunteer work is created equal. While corporate volunteership is great, its engagement with disadvantaged communities tends to be fleeting and relatively superficial. A bus full of volunteers arrives at a place, tables are set up, services are administered, and then the bus leaves. This is good work, but it’s not anywhere close to the kind of service that McChrystal, Clinton, and others are talking about. Critically, it’s also almost always local, which has a lot of benefits, but doesn’t do much to help Alabamans understand Californians.

What I and (I assume) McChrstyal and Clinton envision is something much closer to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, where young people live and work in the communities they are serving every day, sometimes in towns and cities thousands of miles from where they grew up.

Living in a place confers a very different kind of experience from simple charity. You are immersed; you meet people and their families; you learn to care because those people are your people now; your neighborhood is their neighborhood; your work is intimately involved in people’s lives; and they count on you. You learn to recognize the inalienable dignity and worth of people who are completely different from you—in short, kinship and solidarity.

This kind of experience changes hearts and minds; I’ve seen it. As Andrew Solomon wrote in Far From the Tree, “It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.” I don’t know what national service is like in other countries, but I’d hope American national service would look something like this.

Finally, who said that it has to be compulsory? Tie national service to tuition for higher education or trades. Create a culture of incentives where doing the service year becomes an expectation of citizenship. None of this will be easy, but it is possible—and the potential benefits could radically change the way Americans think about one another.

Thanks for putting up with this wall of text!

Another reader illustrates how service in Israel isn’t exactly compulsory:

The divisions in Israeli politics aren’t lessened by national service, because it’s less mandatory in reality than on paper. Haredim have enjoyed exemptions from the founding of the state until quite recently, and the struggle to draft them is one source of the division. Arabs are exempt, except for Druze. Exemplary students can get exemptions. I think the stat is something like only a bit more than half of Israelis actually serve. Get that back to where it was 30 years ago, and you might see some greater unity and understanding.

Another reader, Susanna, looks at a few more countries:

The term “national service” has very broad meaning, not necessarily military service. I’d like to see a national service that has different branches: health, education, service and military and each branch sees participants working in underserved areas of the U.S. and a compulsory period overseas. It’s an important part of education to learn about other countries and all those countries you cite in the article have easy access to other cultures. America does not.

I traveled a lot in Europe in the ’80s and ’90s and met many Greeks who talked glowingly of their national service days. Many of those I met worked in hospitals and health centers. They worked a lot with the elderly. Even my parents’ generation in England had some good things to say about their service days. It was the first time they got to travel and really experience the countries they fought with and against during the war.

This ultimately humanizing experience could do so much good.