A day does not go by without some political pundit pointing out the extent to which the country is divided. Division along political lines is not a new thing.
What is new, or at least more evident, given the advent of social media, is the anger and intolerance toward one another that characterizes our interactions. Dissent is, and should be, a healthy dynamic in any free society. What we are faced with now is not civil dissent, but outright disdain and even hatred for one another merely because we disagree about how to solve the many common challenges that face us. It used to be that common problems brought us closer together. The intransigence that clouds our relationships is, at the least, worrisome. Unchecked, its damage to our democracy might just be irreversible. How to bridge the divide? Or, put another way, how to get us to understand and value one another despite our differences?
There are no easy solutions. However, it occurs to me that there are ways for us to come together that might have a mitigating effect with respect to how we treat one another. Several years ago, while teaching a class at a local college in nonfiction writing, I suggested that perhaps we ought to consider requiring that each young person, either right after high school or college, be required to fulfill some sort of national service. Well, you could hear a pin drop. This appeared to be an affront to their sense of freedom and entitlement. But after some discussion at least a few of the students admitted to seeing some merit in my suggestion.
As has been pointed out often, a mere 1 percent of Americans serve in the Armed Forces. We can argue over the virtue or necessity of any war. I served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and I would be dishonest if I claimed to have taken easily to military life. In fact, I chafed against every aspect of it. Yet, as much as I wished for it to end as quickly as possible, there are, enduring benefits. I served with and worked with people from all walks of life — farm kids, city kids, rich kids, poor kids, you name it. We all wore the same uniform, faced our challenges together, developed a sense of camaraderie nearly impossible to experience in the civilian world, and came to know and appreciate one another despite our widely contrasting cultural and economic differences. The military is an effective equalizer that forces each and every one serving to work and live and care for one another in spite of who they are and where they come from. The stories of the ways that military service has enabled countless men and women to lead more purposeful and structured lives are legion.
I am neither a pacifist nor one who believes, unfortunately, that there are not legitimate reasons for taking up arms. Like it or not, there are threats to our safety from time to time that warrant military action. If that is the case, then it seems to me that we all have an obligation to share in the burden, men and women, rich and poor, well educated and poorly educated. Serving in the military is just one possible solution. One step. National service can take many forms. I lean toward compulsory military because as citizens we all should share in the sacrifice that the legitimate defense of our nation requires. Too many rich and connected people find ways of ensuring that people less fortunate than themselves bear the burden.
I close by observing that some of our more recent military ventures have been, and continue to be, ill-advised. Consonant with a system of compulsory military service would be a renewed commitment to ensuring that any military action engaged in be in response to direct threats to our national security.