One Year of Mandatory National Service For Every American?

One Year of Mandatory National Service For Every American?


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Seventy-three years ago, The Times reported that the United States Army demobilized its seven millionth soldier after the end of World War II. When I unearthed this clip several months ago, I thought I was misreading the number. It’s hard to imagine a single service ballooning to more than eight million people (the Army’s peak strength by V-E Day in 1945) and then releasing 6.5 million soldiers in just over a year. The draft certainly made it easier to fill the ranks, but nearly 40 percent of World War II-era service members across all branches volunteered for duty. By comparison, in today’s all-volunteer force approximately 475,000 service members make up the active-duty Army — a fraction of the overall adult population in the United States.

Last year, the Army struggled to meet its end-strength goal of 483,500, even after spending an extra $200 million on bonuses and lowering standards to let in more recruits. Reporting for The Times in September 2018, Dave Philipps wrote: “On top of having to compete with a robust economy, with an unemployment rate below 4 percent, the Army must pick from what it says is a shrinking pool of eligible recruits. More than two-thirds of young adults do not qualify for military service because of poor physical fitness or other issues such as drug use, according to the Army.”

As the military tests new approaches to pulling in more recruits, a controversial proposal has come out of early discussions with one of the Democratic presidential candidates: one year of mandatory national service for every American. Pete Buttigieg, a Navy veteran and the mayor of South Bend, Ind., mentioned the idea in April during an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow as a program to improve social cohesion in the United States. “One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it, if not legally obligatory but certainly a social norm, that anybody after they’re 18 spends a year in national service,” Buttigieg said. (He did not indicate whether this would be military service or expand to programs like AmeriCorps.)

It’s not the first time a form of required national service has been suggested as a way to unite the country. For instance, Gen. Stanley McChrystal proposed the idea in 2014 “to create a new rite of passage into adulthood and forge a renewed sense of citizenship.” The plan didn’t go anywhere, but the introduction of such a concept has prompted debates about whether mandatory national service is undemocratic or whether it’s the path toward a stronger sense of solidarity among Americans. I’ll be curious to see if Buttigieg’s remark becomes a campaign talking point going into the 2020 election.

What are your thoughts on one year of mandatory national service, in the military or in a civic organization? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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