Uniting America through National Service


The “Sunday Review” section of today’s New York Times contains a dialogue on “Uniting America through National Service,”  sparked by a recent suggestion by David Brooks that the nation needs a national service program in order to unite the separating classes in American society.  Those in favor of mandatory national service point out its potential for building individual character, uniting the nation, cause national leaders to consider military engagement abroad more carefully, and contribute to the civic infrastructure.  These arguments are generally thoughtful and moderate. Nevertheless, I remain intensely opposed to any program of mandatory national service precisely because it would be mandatory, because it would be national, and because it would require service.

A mandate incumbent upon all Americans would require a means of compulsion, a system of compulsion, and a program of compulsion.  By “means of compulsion,” I mean there would have to be some way of forcing people to take part, whether they choose to or not.  Force is least required when people will participate voluntarily. For most of American history, a peacetime draft was unworkable precisely because it would meet with so much resistance. Even the wartime draft during the Civil War provoked draft riots in New York. On the eve of American entry into World War I, no less a person than Speaker of the House Champ Clark declared of his home state “Missouri sees precious little difference between a conscript and a convict,” and during the war some Oklahomans rose up against the draft in the “green corn rebellion.” Although some draft resisters did go to jail in World War II, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and popular feeling that the war was unavoidable created enough support among the American public that people were willing to accept a draft as a necessary measure for conducting a large-scale war. During the Cold War that followed, Americans for the first time largely accepted a peace time draft because they tended to see this as essential to maintaining defense against what was perceived as the ever-present threat of the Soviet Union. Even then, though, the draft only worked as a “selective service system,” that did not fall on every one. This selective system fell apart when popular support for American policy would no longer suffice to maintain even the selective use of compulsion. A universal mandate would mean that even if 90% of Americans supported national service, one out of every ten people would still have to be coerced. That is a pretty big portion of the population to coerce in a supposedly free society, and every indication is that real percentage would be much greater than this

A system of compulsion must follow from the chosen means. In the case of the military draft, the system of compulsion is usually either a branch of the service or prison. It seems to me that if one advocates universal mandatory service, one must also advocate a vast system of prison camps for dissenters, as well as companies of national service for those who support or at least accept the universal mandate. This may well contribute to the national infrastructure. During the 1930s, both the new National Socialist service programs and the prison camps contributed to building the German infrastructure. Similarly, the Gulag provided slave labor to the Soviet system, while collectivization pressed the “free” population into service. Presumably, neither the American national service corps nor the American prison camps would be as intensely coercive as these totalitarian societies, but there is no question that a universal mandate would push everyone into some sort of system of coerced labor.

While in a system of political compulsion, people undergo a program of compulsion. I note that many of the advocates of mandatory national service maintain that this would make “better citizens” of Americans.  In order to achieve this goal, though, the national service companies (and the prison camps) would need to include, either explicitly or implicitly, a program of citizenship training.  This would of necessity follow an organizational definition of what constitutes good citizenship, and would unavoidably be a course of indoctrination by federal officers.

This brings us to why the “national” part would be problematic. I often point to the Tocquevillean ideal of local voluntary organizations as a basis for American democracy. Along these lines, the sociologist Robert Nisbet argued that centralized national institutions tend to replace local institutions. A dictatorship arises when a polity does not consist of a nation-wide set of interconnections within local communities, but of atomized individuals connected to a powerful central state. If we want to destroy voluntary local associations and replace them with a system of authoritarianism, I can think of no better way than to force every individual into service to the central state.

The system of national compulsion would, further, entail a huge bureaucracy.  This, of course, should pose no problem for those who believe that government should be unlimited in size as well as in power. It would also mean a vast expansion of opportunities for a “new class” of administrators and power brokers who would decide what all the national servants should do.  It is unlikely, though, that the bureaucracy would be very efficient economically.

Finally, we come to the issue of service itself. Given the intellectual agility of the Supreme Court, I think it is entirely possible that the justices would not find compulsory service synonymous with involuntary servitude, and that mandatory national service would not be ruled as violating the thirteenth amendment. But if we turn everyone into a servant of the nation, this does not only mean we would take away every individual’s autonomy.  Since the nation is an abstraction, in real terms this would mean making every person in the United States a humble servant of government officials.  If that is what you want, then you should support the call for national service.

The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Bankston’s full bio, here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?

Copyright © 2011 Carl L. Bankston III.