Rethinking National Service

One of the most important questions we should be asking ourselves ten years after 9/11 is more likely to generate guilty shrugs than nods in agreement: Why did no one in authority ever mobilize the American people? In those early days when armies were gathering for war, the nation was summoned not to sacrifice but to return to the shopping malls. Inevitably, the burdens of that war fell on the few instead of the many. A decade later, we the many are running out of troops, taxpayer dollars, and, apparently, any original ideas. Returning to the draft is not the answer, but we are overdue for a serious conversation about linking national service to education benefits.

The memoirs of Pres. George W. Bush, his secretary of defense, his secretary of state, and now his vice president collectively number thousands of pages. These tomes reveal that there was little questioning of our basic assumptions after 9/11, such as whether our all-volunteer military could sustain such a long conflict. Unlike other wars, Americans fought this one by simply sending other people’s kids. Less than one percent of Americans have ever served in uniform throughout an entire decade of war. Today, you are more likely to know a resident of North Dakota, our least populated state, than a soldier on active duty in the United States Army. (With the reserves added in, both populations number about 600,000.)

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