“I call, therefore, a complete and generous education, that which fits a man to
perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously, all the offices, both private and
public, of peace and war.”

—John Milton

On February 25, 1906, to a full assembly at Stanford University, William James gave his most famous speech, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” James coined this phrase to contrast the noble and heroic human qualities that war evokes with the destructive purposes they most often serve. In James’s view there were many values of military life that were worth preserving if not encouraging, such as “intrepidity, contempt for softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command,” all of which “remain the rock upon which States are built.” James even suggested the conscription of youth into national service for the purpose of inculcating these “martial virtues”:

To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted, off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.

These martial virtues, concluded James, though “originally gained by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods.”

Many in America today hold a similar belief, that our country’s sense of citizenship has deteriorated to such an extent that only by mobilizing our youth for a moral equivalent of war can we hope to reinstate a sense of civic duty. The Hoover Institution Conference on National Service, held September 8-9, 1989, brought together a panel of both the leading critics and proponents of national service, and National Service: Pro & Con is a collection of the papers and comments made at the conference. As Williamson Evers writes in his introduction, the debate can be summarized as “opposing libertarian and communitarian ideologies”: those who oppose national service emphasize individual rights, constitutional protection, and free market economics; and those who favor it stress civic virtue, citizenship, and community service as a common duty of all. To the Hoover Institution’s credit, no other book has ever presented as balanced a picture of the national service debate. The polemics are intelligently drawn and eloquently stated, and the frank and free fashion in which the issue is debated is a treasure rarely found in contemporary American discourse.

Anyone who doubts that this is an issue whose time has come should simply take note of the number of bills recently proposed in Congress. In 1989 alone, nine bills in the Senate and eleven in the House proposed some sort of national service. President Bush’s $25 million Youth Engaged in Service (YES), the least ambitious plan of national service, would create a Points of Light Foundation to grant tax funds to promising private organizations and public service programs. The most ambitious plan, the bill that has drawn the most attention and the one to which virtually all of the Hoover panelists addressed their arguments, was drawn up by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and introduced into Congress as the Citizenship and National Service Act of 1989 by Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) and Congressman Dave McCurdy (D-Oklahoma). The New York Times called this $13 billion proposal “the catalyst” of the current national service debate.

The Nunn-McCurdy bill proposed a voluntary program of national service that would encompass both civilian service and citizen soldiery. Individuals who had completed high school with a diploma or its equivalent could either enlist in the armed forces for two years of active duty or work for one or two years in a Citizen Corps for $100 a week plus health insurance valued at $1,100 a year. Charles Moskos—a sociologist at Northwestern University and one of the nation’s leading proponents of national service—believes there are 3.5 million positions open each year that are ideally suited for unskilled Citizen Corps volunteers, particularly in “education, the health sector, and child care, but several hundred thousand youth could be employed in such fields as conservation, criminal justice, and libraries and museums.”

All participants in the Citizen Corps would receive a $10,000 tax-free voucher for each year of service, which could be used for college tuition, career training, or a down payment on a house; a two-year stint in the armed forces would entitle the volunteer to a $24,000 tax-free voucher. After a phase-in period of five years, all federal funds for student aid would be tied to this program; in other words, student loans and grants would be contingent on national service.

The Hoover debate highlights the principal objections to this program. Policy analyst Bruce Chapman and economist Walter Oi demonstrated that the national service volunteers enrolling in the military track would actually be earning a higher salary than regular military recruits—hardly an incentive “to be all you can be.” Milton Friedman, not surprisingly, objected to any form of national service. Besides questioning the voluntariness of these voluntary programs—”Is it voluntary for me as a taxpayer when my money is used for the purpose of promoting somebody else’s concept of national service?”—he argued that the law of unintended consequences forever works overtime in national politics, that large, federally-run projects are doomed to be perverted into pork barrels of corruption. He, among others, also questioned the “opportunity costs” of such initiatives, the cost of foregoing whatever else our young people could be doing in lieu of sweeping floors for Uncle Sam, to which proponent Amitai Etziono responded: “I could accept people working less for McDonald’s and more for the conservation corps.”

The deficit crisis stalled the DLC plan in late spring of 1989, whereupon Senator Nunn and others began speaking of a small trial run of the project. Virtually every proposal of national service ever made has suddenly been resurrected for inclusion in this $300 million experiment. Programs by Barbara Mikulski, Christopher Dodd, and Edward Kennedy have been combined with the Volunteers in Service to America, Retired Senior Volunteer, Foster Grandparent, and the Senior Companion programs and included in this new omnibus bill. It is difficult to disagree with Bruce Chapman’s observation that what is now at work is that “great stove of government expansionism where many a pot of old liberal porridge is kept on the back burner until it can be brought forward and presented as nouvelle cuisine.”

But perhaps what is most interesting about the Hoover debate is not so much what was discussed as what the panel refused to discuss: the idea of a mandatory system of national service. “No one is talking about compulsion. There is no bill currently in Congress that is compulsory,” said Peter Szanton. “Emphatically rejected by all but a handful, politically speaking [compulsory service programs] are nonstarters with about as much appeal as concentration camps,” stated Martin Anderson. Yet, as many proponents have pointed out, such an idea is not necessarily a nonstarter with the American people. As Mr. Moskos cites in A Call to Civic Service, recent Gallup-Harris polls show that the public has consistently supported the idea of national service, and that a majority of respondents even favor compulsory service. But regardless of public opinion, think tanks and scholars should never allow politics or political expediency to set the parameters of debate. The Hoover debate reminded me of a 1988 conference on the future of Europe, where a State Department analyst discounted a paper contemplating a unified Germany because “that’s outside the scope of our agenda.”

In fact, the history of Germany—more specifically Prussia—offers salutary lessons on this question of national service. In the six years between the Treaty of Tilsit of 1807, which reduced Prussia to a virtual vassal of France, and Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig in 1813, a small band of soldiers and civil servants initiated one of the most ambitious and successful periods of reform in European history. To circumvent the stipulation in the Treaty of Tilsit that forbad Prussia an army larger than 42,000, as well as to devise a system for the training of replacements for war, the Prussians instituted the Krümpersystem: the rotation of small groups of young men into military service for short periods of time. This allowed Prussia to train a larger number of men in the use of arms than treaty stipulations allowed; it also contributed to the fervid sense of citizenship that swept through Prussian society in the wake of reform.

Prussia’s revolt against Napoleon in December 1812 set the stage for another military innovation. To defend itself against French reprisals Prussia mobilized a Landwehr, a civilian militia of territorial units of all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45. The Landwehr was a citizen army with its own leadership and officers. Its members were not split up and sent to the front as replacements for the regular army, but rather fought alongside the regular regiments with separate designations and distinct uniforms. In June 1813 it was suggested that the Landwehr be integrated into the general army, and the suggestion was flatly rejected. The integrity of the Landwehr, and the idea on which it was based—that a community is best defended by its own citizens—were to be preserved.

This idea played no small role in the military superiority of the German Armed Forces (the Wehrmacht) of World War II. As evidenced by rates of casualties, the Germans fought twice as well as the Americans and the British and four times better than the Russians. This military tenacity has often been attributed to the strong political convictions of the German Army, to the power of the ideology of National Socialism. But as many studies have pointed out, particularly Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz’s “Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht of WWII,” political ideology actually played a minor role in the solidarity of the German Army.

What the German Army realized is that a soldier’s loyalties belong first and foremost to the immediate members of his community. This was the reason for Germany’s regional recruitment, or “national units.” From divisions on down the German Army was based on homogeneous, national groupings; Prussians served with Prussians, Bavarians with Bavarians, Saxons with Saxons, and so forth. There was a high degree of cohesion in the national units of the Wehrmacht, and desertions and surrenders were virtually unheard of. Desertions and surrenders were quite common, however, in the Volksdeutsche, the ethnically heterogeneous units in which Austrians, Czechs, and Poles were randomly mixed.

This understanding of the importance of community ties lay also at the heart of Germany’s system of troop rotation. In contrast to America’s system, which undermined a unit’s sense of community with the constant infusion of replacements and raw recruits, Germany rotated troops and reinforced the front by moving in entire divisions, thus maintaining the camaraderie of the units that had trained, fought, and suffered together. This system of rotation prevented the Wehrmacht from experiencing what became evident among some American soldiers by the end of WWII and became endemic among soldiers in Vietnam: the narcissistic state in which camaraderie is supplanted with the all-encompassing concern for “saving your own skin.”

A country that consciously disregarded this appreciation of community was Italy. Victor Emmanuel II’s Minister of War, General Manfredo Fanti, saw military recruitment as an opportunity for engineering a vast melting pot of cultures. As with the American military draft of the 1950’s and 60’s, which took a black car salesman from Detroit and a white miner from Appalachia and shipped them to California to serve alongside an American Indian from Arizona, Fanti’s goal was to strip individuals of all personal identities and community ties and to impose upon them a new and improved cultural consciousness. Recruits were yanked from their communities and forced to serve in strange environments with ethnically mixed regiments. A successful amalgamation of cultures, however, was not the result. Cultural differences remained, and personal hatreds and sectional discord were fueled rather than suppressed. As John Whittam concluded in his study of the Italian Army, this experimentation with social engineering and indoctrination did more to hinder than to help the cause of Italian unification.

The organization and administration of the German Army were clearly designed to meet the social, cultural, and psychological needs of the individual soldier. It was an understanding and appreciation of the ideology of Gemeinschaft—not the ideology of National Socialism—that produced the power, persistence, and perseverance of the Wehrmacht.

There are proponents of national service who would disregard these German lessons and opt instead to follow Italy’s lead. For the Benjamin Barbers of the national service debate, a national purpose could be imposed from above. Through mandatory “citizenship training” and “civic education” a new cultural consciousness could be concocted for the creation of a kinder and gentler New American Man. But if we walk down this road pioneered by Italy, we should be prepared to pay the same price. Italy is not, and never has been, a unified country, and its many attempts at social, political and cultural unification have exacerbated rather than extinguished its national discord. A system of national service built on ideological indoctrination would merely be the latest attempt to destroy and homogenize local diversity and regional uniqueness.

Manfredo Fanti, however, need not be our point of departure. Through a respect for regional diversity and a cultivation of community ties, a worthy system of national service might be possible. What follows, therefore, is a sketch of what might be the least potentially harmful and the most potentially beneficial plan of national service.

We could call it YSCC, Youth in Service to Community and Country. It would be mandatory for all eighteen-year-old males and voluntary for all females. Such a program would avoid the blatant inequity of a voluntary system of national service tied to federal college aid, in which the burden of service falls squarely on the middle class and neither the rich nor the poor end up serving: the former because they don’t need the money and the latter because college is alien to their socioeconomic culture. Mr. Moskos has argued that tying national service to federal financial aid would actually widen rather than restrict access to higher education, because currently “the prospect of student-incurred debt is undoubtedly a major factor in the declining number of poor youth entering and completing college.” But the duties and responsibilities of citizenship would still remain on the backs of those in our communities who are most in need, while no service would be required from the rich and privileged.

National service could not, however, ever be mandatory for women, unless we as a country want the responsibility for the care of the thousands of babies born annually to unwed teen mothers. Besides, considering our heightened concern for rape and sexual abuse of any kind, there is indeed something “Frightening,” to quote Margaret Mead, about the “picture of girls at eighteen, lined up, stripped, weighed, examined, within the brutal disregard of human dignity characteristic of the boot camp.”

What would distinguish this program from other proposals is the degree to which both compulsion and autonomy are worked into the system. All eighteen-year-old males, or all males upon graduation from high school, could be required to give one year of service. They would first be required to participate in a three-month period of military training, in a boot-camp type of environment. (It appears that any compulsory system of national service that did not mandate some sort of military service would be in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on “involuntary servitude”; in other words, a compulsory system solely of civilian service would most likely be declared unconstitutional.) The training could occur at the local high schools, or at a designated locale in the community where a number of high schools would congregate to train together. The military personnel and materiel needed for training could be provided by the local or county National Guard. The participants would remain in their community, be trained alongside their friends, at already existing local facilities. There would be no classes on “civics,” no lectures on “citizenship,” and no one would be uprooted from his home and shipped a thousand miles away for a “sensitivity seminar” on pluralism, globalism, or victimology.

At the end of the three months of military training, the participants would be given information for deciding how and in what capacity they would like to serve the remainder of their nine months of service. They would have the choice of serving in one of three areas: the military, social service, or a conservation corps. For those participants without a high school diploma, high school equivalency classes, concomitant with their chosen line of service, would be mandatory till either the earning of the certificate or the termination of their service year. Upon completion of their year of service, participants would receive a tax-exempt voucher worth perhaps seven or eight thousand dollars—the equivalent to a year’s worth of work at minimum wage but certainly not more than the annual salary of a first-year soldier in the regular army. Participants living at home or in their own housing for the duration of the program (i.e., those serving in social services, and perhaps also those serving in a conservation corps) would also receive a monthly stipend for living expenses. As proposed in other programs, the voucher could be used for college tuition, career training, or a down payment on a house.

The benefits of such a program would be many. The vouchers would appeal to both the college and noncollege bound youth. The mandatory military training and optional military track would introduce many youngsters to the world of the military who would probably never have entertained the thought of a career in this field had it not been for a compulsory program of national service, which could only be advantageous to an army having trouble attracting new blood; and the amount of the service vouchers would not exceed the amount of a professional soldier’s pay, thus not competing with or harming regular army recruitment. Local communities would have sole control over determining where and how these citizen-soldiers would be utilized; there would be no federally designated jobs, no affirmative action quotas in determining the type of jobs to be filled. The relatively short period of time in which the participants would be performing their jobs, nine months, would be ideally suited for social service positions in which burnout plays a major role, such as in nursing homes, hospital wards, and institutions for the mentally ill. Youth serving in these demanding positions would be those who have freely elected them because they either feel sympathetic to these segments of our community or are simply interested in exploring the career possibilities in these fields. Contrary to the concerns expressed by Martin Anderson, no participant in a program of national service need be forced to work in insane asylums, to monitor homeless shelters, or to serve as bathroom attendants in prisons for AIDS-infected child molesters.

The social service track as well as the conservation corps would, I hope, concentrate on rebuilding and repairing our decrepit infrastructure—our roads, bridges, railways, and public buildings. Surprisingly, not one member of the Hoover panel even considered the idea of emphasizing national service in this area. As others have suggested, to prevent possible job displacement, union leaders could sit on the state and local boards that would be determining the type of community services needed, so that cooperation not competition results from the influx of additional labor, much like FDR’s appointing of a labor leader to head the CCC in the 1930’s. The mandatory high-school equivalency courses required of all high-school dropouts would also appeal to that growing segment of our country calling for a national war on illiteracy.

Such a program of national service, which simulates a type of Krümpersystem and reflects the spirit of a Landwehr, which understands that citizenship is grounded on strong community ties, and that community ties are strongest when common cultural origins are preserved; which mandates equal participation in the system from all socioeconomic ranks and leaves the door open to anyone who may wish to participate; which allows for great freedom of choice within the program; which provides youngsters with discipline and training in various skills; which gives them a way off our crime- and drug-infested streets; which gives them, perhaps for the very first time, some direction to their lives, some faith in their future; which teaches experientially rather than pedagogically that membership in a community entails duties as well as rights, responsibilities as well as entitlements; which does all this at the state and local level under state and local control, free from federal manipulation and indoctrination—such a program of national service would indeed be worthy of support.

Such a plan, however, would require the acceptance of a number of unpalatable social and political truths about our unpalatable times. And Washington, as we all know, shows no sign of foregoing the palatable for the true.


[National Service: Pro & Con, Edited and introduced by Williamson M. Evers (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press) 261 pp., $21.95 (cloth), $14.95 (paper)]