WASHINGTON — These are tough times for the nation, by which I mean the idea of the nation, the concept of things national.
Some conservatives are in a full Jefferson-Jackson mode, resisting national education standards as if they were the National Bank and criticizing the National Security Agency as though it were enforcing the Alien and Sedition Acts. All that is national is seen as federal, and all that is federal is seen as Obama, and all that is Obama is seen as arbitrary and threatening.
It is not an auspicious time to begin a dialogue on national service. Which demonstrates why it is needed.
The impetus for this discussion has come from the military. During an event at the Aspen Institute's Ideas Festival last year, Gen. Stanley McChrystal offhandedly endorsed universal national service for young people graduating from high school or college, fulfilled in either a military or civilian setting. His particular concern was the growing disconnect between the less than 1 percent of Americans who serve in the armed forces and the rest of country.
This mention has matured into a proposal, endorsed by a list of luminaries including former Secretaries of State Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. 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 to serve a year or more in a civilian service program? National service, while not legally mandatory, would be socially expected.
The service movement has always had an element of nostalgia for the shared, unifying burdens of World War II, America's 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.”