Honor Veterans By Considering Revival of National Service

I’m probably not the only person who has noticed that commemoration of veterans and recognition of active military personnel have been growing in recent years. It’s a good thing, and certainly a welcome change from the virtual amnesia so many Americans displayed with respect to Vietnam vets.

But I’d guess another reason for the heightened visibility of military commemorations is a sort of inverted guilt: the realization that service to the country has become truly “exceptional” with the transition to an all-volunteer military. World War II vets were to some extent so famously quiet about the horrors they experienced because it was a near-universal phenomenon, at least for men.

So I’d suggest that in addition to the public events we already hold, and the individual gestures like expressions of appreciation to uniformed military, we honor veterans by having a period of serious discussion about expanding national service–not just in the military, but in civilian positions as well. I’m not talking about mandatory service, though even that step should be discussed, not just rejected out of hand. And I’m not talking about occasional volunteerism, helpful as it is, but a return to the idea that a short period of full-time service should again become a regular if voluntary part of Americans’ lives, perhaps in exchange for “GI Bill”-type higher education benefits.

Unfortunately, the very idea of national service has in recent years been so associated with Bill Clinton (and to some extent Barack Obama), whose Americorps program was a small but visible step towards the kind of full-scale initiative some of us have advocated in the past, that Republicans (with a few exceptions like John McCain, who’s not always wrong) have become cool if not hostile to the very subject. There’s no good reason that should continue perpetually, particularly if college costs continue to skyrocket.

In any event, we should talk up national service on days like this one, when honoring service already performed.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.