The service movement has always had an element of nostalgia for the shared, unifying burdens of World War II, the United States’ epic of citizenship. In his slim, weighty volume, “Gratitude,” William F. Buckley recalled how his war experience has been a reminder of the “pulsation of consanguinity” that united the “Laramie cowboy” and the “Litterateur in Greenwich Village.” National service, he argued, can “ever so slightly elevate us from the trough of self-concern and self-devotion.”I can't help but wonder if Buckley's perception might have been different had he, the "Litterateur in Greenwich Village", not graduated from Officer Candidate School, and had served as an enlisted man taking orders from his proverbial "Laramie cowboy", if he had been ordered to storm Omaha Beach, or if he had served in the Vietnam era. But at least he was speaking from the perspective of somebody who actually performed military service.
Gerson attempts some poeticism of his own,
The natural centrifugal forces of democracy have been augmented by geographical mobility and technologies that allow for the complete customization of little societies.Basically, Gerson sees changes in society as a bad thing, not surprising given that conservatism is inherently resistant to change and Gerson's conservatism seems primarily social in its nature, and fantasizes about a public service "melting pot" in which young people can forge bonds and embrace some sort of "national purpose". It seems fair to note that Gerson's resort to WWII, in which the military and parts of American society remained deeply segregated, and his avoidance of addressing the Vietnam experience, by which time the military and in large part American society were integrated, casts a shadow over his assumptions. Could it be that society as a whole coalesced around WWII and the common purpose of defeating Germany and Japan, while society's reaction to the Vietnam war created some significant social rifts? That in neither case was military / national service the driving force behind unity and disunity? Shouldn't we also acknowledge that different people draw different lessons from similar experiences? Or that some people forced into military service have very bad experiences that alienate them from their country or from certain groups of their fellow countrymen? Is that reality too dark to be allowed to interfere with such a happy dream?
How then does a democracy cultivate civic responsibility and shared identity? Taxation allows us to fund common purposes, but it does not provide common experiences. A rite of passage in which young people — rich and poor, liberal and conservative, of every racial background — work side by side to address public problems would create, at least, a vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purpose.
Note also, Gerson's proposal cannot reasonably be described as involving shared experience:
Instead of giving 18-year-old males a meaningless (to them) Selective Service number, why not also give all 18-year-old men and women information on the five branches of the armed forces, along with the option of serving a year or more in a civilian service program? National service, while not legally mandatory, would be socially expected.How many 18-year-olds are unaware of the armed forces, or of how they might enlist? How would "the option of serving a year or more in a civilian service program" represent some form of shared experience with members of the military? We're talking about roughly 4 million 18-year-olds per year, with the armed forces accepting roughly 180,000 enlisted personnel and 20,000 officers each year - while Gerson's plan might in theory result in a slightly larger pool of applicants, the military is exceeding its recruiting goals, so the net effect on society of providing "information on the five branches of the armed forces" is likely to be de minimis.
For the 3.8 million or so young people who Gerson wants to see pressured into performing civilian public service, what sort of work would his civilian programs perform? How would participants be housed, fed and otherwise supported during this program? How would we make the program more unifying than any other civilian job an 18-year-old might be able to get? How would we train and supervise participants? What sort of value could we reasonably expect to obtain from a year of service, with participants completing the program right around the time they might achieve some level of mastery of whatever it is they're assigned to do - or do we spend the hundreds of billions of dollars it would take to implement this experiment without concerning ourselves about whether the work performed benefits society in any way other than the anticipated cultivation of civic responsibility?
It's also fair to ask, how does Gerson explain his own commitment to civic responsibility, given that he has never performed anything approaching public service. When he argues that public service is necessary for today's young people, even if completely unnecessary for him, does he include his own children among those who won't form an adequate commitment to American society unless they join the military or perform a year of "public service" as part of this new, mammoth government program, or is he worried about other people's children? For that matter, does he want his children to participate in a "public service" program through which they learn and adopt the culture and beliefs of others, or does he anticipate that they'll be the good influences who help impress civic responsibility upon society's riff raff?
I don't want to sound unsympathetic to Gerson's concerns about society and social cohesion, although I expect that we have considerably different views in relation to what level of conformity is desirable in a society and about the identity of the populations where we should focus our efforts on improving social cohesion and conduct. I have a different concern than Gerson about college-aged kids - that many feel pushed into college, or to pick a career path, when they would benefit from taking a year or two between high school and college to learn more about themselves, what careers they might want to pursue, and ultimately whether college is the right choice for them.
I am not one to embrace the notion that there's something wrong with "kids these days", or to ignore the fact that the "kids these days" who are going to ruin society invariably grow up to be the next generation of workers and parents who share similar sentiments about the next generation of kids. The factions that most concern me are the ones I first met when I entered legal practice - the defendants who, after a night in jail, are yukking it up as they wait for their criminal cases to be called. The parent who can't understand why anybody would object to the "good old fashioned whupping" they gave to a small child, who was left with a massive bruise extending from the small of his back to the bottom of his thighs. The grown men who argue that they should not be incarcerated for statutory rape because their twelve-year-old victim "looked at least fourteen". The mother who, given a choice between losing custody of her children and staying with an abusive boyfriend, picks the boyfriend.
It's easy for somebody like Gerson to go through life blissfully unaware that this type of population exists, read paragraphs like this one and imagining that he understands what I'm talking about, or sidestepping the question of what groups most need help and how to help them by adding his "kids these days"/"national service will cure (most or) all that ails society" argument to the enormous stack of essays and editorials that say more or less the same thing. Never mind that history offers plenty of examples of the military draft and national service programs in dysfunctional nations, it's a much easier argument to make than to take a serious look at the actual rifts within our society and what might work to reduce them.
Here's an interesting alternative: How about the government creates a program that will provide two years of work at a reasonable wage, coupled with relocation to the job location, vocational training and tutoring to help any participant who has not graduated from high school achieve a GED, and effectively guarantee a job to any 18-year-old who does not want to attend college, or who would just as soon defer college but has not found a better employment alternative? If you want, you can move kids around the country so that they experience something different from the community in which they were raised, while also helping kids who want to escape an impoverished area the tools they need to get out and stay out. Given the realities of the job market, you won't need social pressure to get young people to sign up. Call the program "national service" so that conservatives like David Brooks and Gerson can get behind it without complaining about its cost.... Perhaps even better, start up a private "public service" venture, get some of the nation's billionaires to fund it, and run the experiment on private money.
I'm not sure that such a program would be workable, but if you want to push in that direction it seems much more likely to return the benefits Gerson hopes to achieve than the poorly defined concept he shares in his column.