By Joe Wells
Explore this essay
Every year, thousands of residents and tourists descend upon Pamplona, Spain for the Running of the Bulls. This tradition takes place on the second day of the Festival of San Fermin, a nine-day celebration full of fireworks, parade processions, singing, sports, and sangria. Before the run comes an all-night party, and most runners arrive in the morning wearing their sangria-soaked shirts from the night before.
Author Sebastian Junger offers a glimpse into the preceding all-night party in his book, Tribe.
At this party, Junger was enjoying drinks with two newfound Spanish friends, celebrating the festival of San Fermin, and “hydrating” for the next day’s big run. Beside him, one of his Spanish friends was wearing a Viking helmet – peculiar in most settings, but perfectly normal on this night.
All was well until three Moroccans entered the bar, homed in on the helmet, and headed straight toward Junger and the Spaniards. Equally drunk, and considerably larger, the leader of the Moroccans plucked the helmet from the Spaniard’s head and claimed ownership.
The five men fought over the helmet as Junger watched with amusement. As they all pulled in different directions, the helmet began to tear. “Stop!” exclaimed the Spaniard. “It’s starting to rip.” Before he disappeared toward the bar, the Spaniard asked Junger to take his place at the helmet.
Minutes later, the Spaniard returned with a jug of red wine and began pouring it into the helmet. The wine filled the helmet and overflowed onto the fingertips of the five men as they stared at each other in confusion. The Spaniard slid his hand under the helmet and told everyone to let go.
Surprisingly, they did.
As he handed the helmet to the biggest Moroccan in the group, the Spaniard proclaimed, “You are a guest in my country, so you drink first.”
The Moroccan man drank from the helmet, spilling wine down his cheeks and over his shirt. Then he passed it to his left. The men passed the helmet around the circle until it was empty, refilled it, and passed it again. Several jugs of wine later, the helmet lay forgotten under a table while the Spaniards and the Moroccans sang songs and danced like drunken fools.
“What I learned about the encounter,” Junger recounts, “was that it showed how very close the energy of…conflict and…closeness can be. It’s almost as if they are two facets of the same quality; just change a few details and instead of heading toward collision, the men head toward unity. There seemed to be a great human potential out there, organized around the idea of belonging, and the trick was to convince people that their interests had more in common than they had in conflict.”
When the Spaniard poured red wine into the Viking helmet, he infused the situation with unity. The wine nourished the souls of the men, drowned out their differences, and paved the path to camaraderie.
Envision the United States as the bar in Pamplona.
Our citizens are acting like the Spaniards and Moroccans – drunken Neanderthals fighting over a Viking helmet.
What we’re missing is unity. We’re quick to forget that we’re all participants in a grand democratic experiment that can cease to exist if we fail to cooperate. We must realize we have more in common than we have to fight about.
Compulsory national service can be the wine that nourishes our soul. It can drown out our differences, bring us together, and turn adversaries into allies.
Table of Contents
Disunity is plaguing the United States. This essay is an exploration into the historical roots of our ailment, a glimpse at a possible solution, and a vision for our future.
Our tribal history
Tribalism in America
William James’ The Moral Equivalent of War
A new system
Stirring the melting pot
A year in the life
Reduces future student debt
Improves our aging infrastructure
Improves educational outcomes
Decreases loneliness in the elderly
Compulsory service doesn’t mean slavery
I’m not making you join the army
Compulsory service is not too big to implement
The Roots Of Disunity
To fully understand our disunity, we must go back in time. Our current climate has roots thousands of years in the past – in an evolutionary history stemming from tribes.
Our tribal history
Thousands of years ago most humans lived as hunter-gatherers. This was a nomadic existence conducive to life in small, interdependent groups. As a result, we evolved to live in tribal societies – a feature that still exists long after tribal life has all but disappeared.
Sebastian Junger, who we met above, spends a lot of time thinking about our tribal roots. He is an anthropologist and #1 New York Times Bestselling author of five books, including War and Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger is also a former war reporter and documentary filmmaker, most notably responsible for the film Restrepo: a documentary chronicling the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
One of the central themes in much of Junger’s work is unity. Specifically, the questions, “What creates unity?” and “Why do men miss war?” His work is fundamentally important to any conversation about unity in society, and this essay draws heavily from his research and thinking.
As Junger writes in Tribe, humans evolved over thousands of years to live in small, communal, roving groups called tribes. In peacetime, the men would hunt and the women would gather plants and care for the children.
In wartime, the men would fight. Often, war meant an imminent, existential threat to the tribe. Men were fighting for their lives and the lives of their family members. War wasn’t fought thousands of miles away and removed from daily life, like it is for most Americans today. It was close. Even those not in the fight felt its proximity.
The historic immediacy of war differs greatly from the modern American’s wartime experience. Only 1.4 million Americans currently serve in our armed forces, and we only have 22 million living veterans. Those numbers make up 0.4% and 7.3% of the U.S. population, respectively. Additionally, the percent of total veterans has decreased from 18% in 1980 to less than 8% in 2014. Americans today are more detached and disconnected from war than ever.
Americans no longer live like tribal societies of the past. Ancient tribe members slept in communal areas. In the dark of night, they could reach out and touch two, three, or four other people without rising from their bed. Life was close because survival was an ever-present concern.
The nomadic nature of tribes and their daily struggle to survive meant the accumulation of possessions was impossible. Status wasn’t measured materially. Instead social status was earned through hunting skills or battlefield prowess. All men could do these things, and no man had generational advantages. Men born into the same tribe had equal opportunities to become warriors or hunters. They all started from zero, and their status in the tribe was determined by their success largely earned through effort.
Contrast that with American society today. Being born an American is a huge advantage over being born in many other countries, but it doesn’t put you on a level playing field with other Americans. Consider the opportunities of a child born in Detroit to a single mother versus the opportunities of a child born in New England to a wealthy, two-parent household. Though both Americans, those children will have opportunities worlds apart in terms of their education, travel, network, environment, and supervision. Modern outcomes aren’t predetermined, but they’re much more skewed than they were in ancient tribal life.
Studies of tribal societies from American Indians to the !Kung people of the Kalahari desert all share a specific similarity – they didn’t accumulate junk. Hunting and gathering were daily activities, and evenings consisted of everyone sharing the spoils from the day. Tribe members seen to be freeloading or taking more than their share weren’t tolerated – an evolutionary root of many conservative viewpoints today.
Tribal environments were egalitarian to the core. The good of the tribe superseded the good of the individual, and loyalty was high because survival depended on it.
A paradoxical benefit of tribal society was its difficulty. Knowing you won’t eat if your hunting party doesn’t kill a buffalo creates a lot of pressure. Knowing your women and children won’t be safe if your warriors are unsuccessful causes stress. This stress served a purpose. As Junger said on Joe Rogan’s podcast, “adversity produces pro-social behaviors…[and]…the lack of adversity – safety and comfort – allows people to act selfishly.”
A study published in Social Justice Research suggests the same: “In some individuals who have endured adverse or traumatic life events, prosocial behavior can occur not only despite, but even because of the negative experiences that may give rise to specific altruistic motivations…Contact with others who suffer…may also be an important element in these interventions: by creating awareness of others’ suffering that may distract from one’s own, encouraging perceived similarity and empathy, and giving opportunities to help.”
Imagine, for example, you’re living in an American Indian tribe on the plains in the late 1700s. Your hunting party of four killed a buffalo today. You quarter it, preserve it, and hide it in a safe spot. You then return to the tribe, but not before filling your belly with fresh buffalo meat. The rest of the tribe goes hungry – they were relying on your hunting party to feed everyone. Day after day, you return to your hidden buffalo meat, eating plenty to sustain yourself. But eventually, a rival tribe attacks and, since all your warriors are malnourished, the enemy slaughters them. The tribe is overrun, and you’re killed as well.
This scenario never would’ve happened. Hoarding food in a tribe doesn’t benefit anyone. The adversity of potential attack prevents the anti-social behavior of hoarding food. It’s in your best interest for all tribe members to be well-fed and strong. In short, you have skin in the game.
This isn’t the case in modern America. Your pantry could be full, and your neighbor could be starving, but his hunger or plight has no material impact on your survival. Comfort allows you to act selfishly.
Tribalism in America
Fast forward thousands of years to America in 2020. We don’t live in tribes, but our evolutionary roots still long for tribal environments. Consider this example from a 2011 University of California, Merced psychology study:
Students aged four to six were randomly assigned to groups wearing either a red t-shirt or a blue t-shirt. Then, researchers showed the students computer images of other children wearing either red or blue shirts. The students didn’t have any background information on the children in the computer images, but they were asked to rate how much they liked the children, to allocate coins to the children, and to associate positive and negative adjectives with specific children.
The students wearing blue shirts consistently reported liking the children wearing blue shirts better than the children wearing red shirts, gave more coins to other children in blue, and more frequently attributed positive characteristics to children in blue and negative characteristics to children in red. The same was true in reverse.
By nature of their age, children have few life experiences and learned biases upon which to base their preferences. Adults have many. If children possess an innate desire to favor the similar and dislike the different, the level of animosity we see among adults isn’t surprising.
To explain our current disunity in the United States, Professor Amy Chua uses a theory she calls the “market dominant minority” theory. Major cultural institutions – Wall Street, the media, and Silicon Valley – are controlled by what she describes as “coastal elites.” These are groups of people who typically live in coastal cities, have advanced educations, hold progressive political viewpoints, and are extremely insular. The development of this group is due, in part, to increasing income inequality as well as decreasing geographic mobility. According to Axios, “fewer than 10% of Americans moved to new places in the 2018-2019 year, the lowest rate since the Census Bureau began tracking domestic relocations in 1947.”
Contrast coastal elites with so-called “middle Americans” who make up the majority of the country and hold largely different political viewpoints but don’t control major economic, social, and cultural institutions, and you have the perfect storm of division and resentment.
When combined with the power of group dynamics, this is a powerful dividing force for the country. However, it isn’t a new phenomenon. Just like “middle American” Trump supporters clashing with “coastal elites” today, America experienced a similar dynamic during the Vietnam era. The “silent majority” clashed with the vocal minority.
In his famous “Silent Majority” speech delivered on November 3, 1969, Nixon said, “If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society.”
Historically, the United States has experienced these pockets of polarization. Whether the Civil War, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam War, specific eras give rise to periods of disunity. We are experiencing a similar period today.
A report from the Pew Research Center confirms this division, stating: “The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%.”
We’re trending not only toward divisiveness but also dislike. In 1994, only 16% of Democrats had a very unfavorable opinion of Republicans. By 2014, that number jumped to 38%. Similarly, the percentage of Republicans with very unfavorable views of Democrats increased from 17% in 1994 to 43% in 2014.
Couple this with the fact that 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans consider the opposing party’s policies to be a threat to the nation, and harmony seems impossible. How can you appreciate, understand, and get along with your neighbor when you fundamentally believe his/her policies are a threat to the country?
This level of political animosity creates echo chambers and insular communities. Conservatives prefer to live near, work with, and be friends with other conservatives. The same goes for liberals.
We need an intervention. We need a force to fill our Viking helmet with wine so we can cast aside our differences and dance together like the men in the Pamplona bar. Compulsory service can be that force.
Why Compulsory Service?
If disunity is the problem, the next logical question is, “how do we restore unity to the country?” What follows is an answer to that question. Not the answer, an answer.
In pursuit of this answer, I started a podcast to have conversations with experts in national service and related areas. My guests shared powerful perspectives and shaped the course of this essay.
Before delving into the disunity problem, we first have to discuss problem solving. By its very nature, problem solving is oscillatory. For example, if you’re overweight and want to shed a few pounds, that’s the problem. The solution is diet and exercise. So, you diligently count calories and limit desserts. You make the gym a priority, and you start to shed the pounds. Before you know it, you’re lean, mean, and ready for beach season. You’re looking good – maybe you’re even starting to see some abs. You’ve solved your problem of being overweight, so you start to slack on the calorie counting. The time between your workouts stretches from hours to days, then weeks, then months. Before you know it, the pounds are adding back up, your clothes are tight, and there are no abs in sight. It’s a vicious cycle.
The cycle goes something like this:
A good way to prevent this cycle is to create systems rather than solutions.
I want to create a system of compulsory national service. It will address many of our nation’s current problems, and its role as institution rather than solution will do more than solve problems; it will create a tradition through which young Americans give back to their country and build bonds with each other. This system will last decades and transform what it means to be an American.
Instituting a system of compulsory service builds a tribe to which we all belong. It creates a shared experience and reinforces the idea of the “shared American identity” as the overarching group of which we’re all members. Junger agrees:
“In modern society, there is no group to serve, and that leads to a profound sense of meaninglessness for a lot of people…The biggest community we have is the nation. I think one thing that would help tremendously is if we treat the nation like we all belong to it, and as if we all respected it, and as if it was meaningful to all of us.”
In Tribe, Junger recounts the story of when he received his draft card. It was shortly after the Vietnam War ended, and he decided not to sign the card. “I had no problem, personally, with fighting a war,” said Junger. “I just didn’t trust my government to send me to one that was completely necessary.
His father, who was half Jewish, grew up in Europe and left Paris for the United States ahead of the German Blitzkrieg. On top of that, the Vietnam War made him vehemently anti-war. To Junger’s surprise, his father didn’t applaud his refusal to sign the draft card.
Instead, his father told him how American soldiers saved the world from fascism during World War II, and he left the 18-year-old Junger with words reminiscent of JFK’s 1961 inaugural address: “You don’t owe your country nothing. You owe it something, and depending on what happens, you might owe it your life.”
Those simple words reframed the act of signing the draft card from an obligation to an opportunity to be part of something bigger than himself. Americans today lack this powerful shared opportunity to be part of something bigger than the individual. Thankfully, we don’t have to band together to fight fascism. But we do need to band together over something.
How can we reunite our country into a tribe with a common goal? We can create a shared experience that’s had by all. An experience where we struggle together and work to make our country a better place. A place with better roads, bridges, and tunnels; a place where education doesn’t lead to financial servitude; a place where high schools provide tremendous education; and a place where we interact across generations to destroy loneliness.
William James’ “The Moral Equivalent of War”
William James devoted thought to this shared struggle more than 100 years ago when he penned his famous essay. He argued that we need a moral equivalent of war. This is true now more than ever. War strengthens, hardens, unites, and prepares a country for growth. Without these virtues, suggested James, the only alternative is degeneration. Our country is degenerating.
When we aren’t hardened by war, says James, we transition to a “pleasure economy” which leaves us weak and susceptible to demise from within. While James made this argument long ago, its relevance rings true today. Peter Thiel often speaks about how, aside from computers and the internet, we’re not progressing as quickly as we think. In a recent interview with Eric Metaxas, Thiel said, “the main function of the iPhone is to distract us from how the rest of the world hasn’t changed or progressed.”
Additionally, Thiel recently wrote how our society is laden with decadence which he defines as, “stagnation and complacency, a dissipation of creative energy, [and] a jaded will merely to muddle through.” James’ pleasure economy is upon us.
Neither James nor I am advocating for war. We’re suggesting a collective experience – compulsory service of the entire youth population.
As James eloquently wrote, “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dish washing, 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.”
For more context on James’ point, consider America on the homefront during World War II. Rosie the Riveter, war bonds, recycling aluminum and rubber – each on its own insignificant, but collectively these actions put everyone in the same boat. Women jumping into factories – who cares? People buying bonds – isn’t that just an investment? Recycling – of course we’ll recycle! These actions mattered because, when combined, they meant all Americans were making small sacrifices for the collective good – to destroy fascism and save humanity.
Morgan Housel recently suggested that COVID-19 “has become the most common enemy to the greatest number of people since perhaps World War II…The war united Americans because an enemy attack would not discriminate by income or net worth,” says Housel. “The risk was both catastrophic and equal among all Americans. Everyone had to chip in because everyone was at risk.”
That’s the thing about catastrophes – whether war, pandemic, terrorist attack, or natural disaster – they unite us.
Aside from these infrequent, and usually temporary occurrences, we no longer have a common enemy against which we all unite. This is a double-edged sword. We don’t have to send hundreds of thousands of Americans to die on the beaches and in the jungles of our enemies. But without a common enemy we lose our discipline, and we turn our animosity inward.
War, while despicable, is a powerful force. James’ words, though over a century old, still hold true today. We need a moral equivalent of war.
Compulsory Service in Practice
Now that I’ve laid out how compulsory service would benefit society as a whole, I’d like to show how service benefits those who partake in it. Then we’ll talk logistics.
A new system
Compulsory service benefits the individual as much as it benefits the country. According to the Institute for the Future, approximately 85% of jobs that students today will be performing in 2030 don’t exist yet. When you can’t imagine the job you’ll be doing, how do you prepare for it? Building soft skills and exposing yourself to different experiences are good places to start.
Under the compulsory service system, every 18-year-old will serve one year immediately following high school graduation.
Do you want to spend your time in nature, maintaining and improving our national parks? We’ll have a program for you.
Do you want to learn a trade and help rebuild our aging infrastructure? We’ll have a program for you.
Think you want to be a teacher? Or a caregiver for the elderly? We’ll have those programs, too.
While the service will be mandatory, the options will be plenty. Each will thrust young adults into the real world, not a university’s safe space. They’ll interact with people of different ages and different backgrounds. They’ll develop problem-solving skills and improve communication.
Take, for example, a service member working as a teacher’s aide in a sixth-grade classroom. The service member may be tasked with helping students with behavioral problems. When one of those students has an outburst, the service member will take him for a walk, talk him through the issue, and work to resolve the problem. Then the service member might call the child’s parent to explain what happened and how they resolved the issue. This experience, repeated over the course of a year, will teach valuable communication and problem-solving skills. The experience would also offer perspective about a possible career path. It would allow the service member to make an informed decision about whether or not she wants to be a teacher. Regardless of the final decision, she’ll always have the communication “soft skills” developed throughout her year of service.
Employers want employees with soft skills because soft skills are evergreen and transcend roles. LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report identified three soft skills as highest priorities for workers to learn: leadership and management; creative problem solving and design thinking; and communication.
A service year will offer the opportunity to learn these skills. It will enable participants to enter either college or the workforce with practical experience upon which they can expand.
In addition to benefiting the individual, compulsory service also benefits communities. The 2016 AmeriCorps Alumni Study showed powerful positive impacts of participating in AmeriCorps:
Eight out of ten alumni feel confident they can create a plan to address a community issue and get others to care about it.
79% of alumni are or plan to become actively involved in their community post-service, compared to 47% prior.
94% of alumni registered to vote in the 2016 presidential election.
Stirring the melting pot
When it comes to personal development, travel is a powerful positive force. The United States is known as a melting pot, but the melting doesn’t happen if people are never exposed to different cultures. As Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Dipan Patel can attest to the benefits of travel. He spent a summer teaching in a rural Indian village between high school and college. Dipan shared a valuable lesson about his “dual defense mindset” when we spoke on my podcast. Patel grew up in California, the child of Indian immigrants. He spent time in Indian communities but was also exposed to broader American culture. Before attending college in California, Patel spent years at a boarding school in India, and in the summer before his freshman year, he spent three months teaching in a rural Indian village. Exposure to these two distinct cultures gave him a feeling of belonging in each. This belonging extended to the point where he hated to hear anyone speak negatively about his groups. While in India, he would hear Indians talking about “stereotypical Americans,” and in the United States, he would hear Americans talking about “stereotypical Indians.” His connection to each group called him to the defense in each situation, and he learned that belonging to one group was not mutually exclusive with belonging to another.
To cultivate a dual defense mindset in all young Americans, our national service program will include travel. Students will be classified geographically and required to serve outside the geographic region in which they attended high school per the map below. Service groups will be structured in such a way that there is an even mix of urban students and rural students, northern and southern, east coast and west coast.
Race, ethnicity, and religion will not be considered. Those categories will never be collected or counted. By grouping students based on where they grew up, we will achieve a diverse mixture of backgrounds and experiences. Meeting quotas for characteristics like race is irrelevant and divisive. Regardless of color, we’re all Americans. We must remember the American qualities that unite us – free speech, justice, and all you can eat buffets – not the qualities that divide us. Instead of building groups by racial diversity, we will build groups by experiential diversity.
We will promote diversity of thought and experience by separating people based on the geographical regions highlighted in the map above. Geographical divisions will yield different backgrounds, and geography isn’t divisive.
Finally, students will be required to live together in government provided bunkhouses. These bunkhouses will have all the necessities: heat (and A/C where necessary), heated running water, plumbing, and electricity. The housing will be sufficient and functional, but spartan. There will be no televisions.
Students will live in close quarters, lacking some of the modern comforts to which they’ve become accustomed. This shared “suffering” will help create a bond, a togetherness, and a unity that modern conveniences cannot.
A year in the life
Now that we’ve established some basic parameters, let’s explore what the program might look like.
Dipan Patel proposed one possible vision of service: a national parks maintenance program. I’d like to use that program as the specific example to illustrate the effective model of universal national service. Consider Marcus, a typical high school student, as our example:
Step One: In the fall of his senior year, Marcus chooses several service programs to which he wants to apply. In his case, the National Park Service Program is his top choice. Marcus fills out a basic application indicating his interest. He attaches his high school transcript and an interest statement not exceeding 500 words. These supplemental materials are only examined if slots are limited in his chosen program. Marcus lives in New York City, which lies in the broader geographic district of the Mideast (see map above). Marcus is required to list his top three parks in districts other than the Mideast region.
Step Two: Marcus receives his acceptance letter into the National Park Service Program with an assignment to Zion National Park beginning on the first Monday following July 4th.
Step Three: Marcus moves into the bunkhouse at Zion National Park with all the other service members beginning the program. Other service members are made up evenly from the seven other regions highlighted on the map above, ensuring a mix of people from different geographic, economic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
Step Four: After several days of orientation and getting to know fellow service members, Marcus and his peers begin carrying out the tasks assigned by the park coordinator in charge of the program. Tasks include trail maintenance and construction, visitor education, trail patrol to help injured visitors or visitors in need of assistance, cleaning park facilities, and countless other necessary tasks.
Step Five: After serving fifty weeks at Zion National Park, Marcus and his fellow service members receive a certificate of completion from the National Park Service Program and are free to return home. Their certificates will forever certify that they spent one year in service to their country and will grant them continued access to all government benefits for which they are currently eligible or will be eligible in the future. The certificate will also be a prerequisite for any college admission and many offers of employment, and it will transfer into any college as one full semester of credit. These certificates will be as important as a Social Security card.
Spending one year working, living, relaxing, and sharing meals with people from every area of the country will create a shared suffering and shared understanding like nothing else.
“A shared suffering and shared understanding are a powerful thing,” said Matt Conroy, Army Captain and ROTC graduate of Niagara University.
In our podcast conversation, Matt shared the ways in which service shaped his worldview. The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC as it’s commonly called, afforded Matt many opportunities that a traditional college experience couldn’t.
“We had very similar demands to some of the Division One athletes at our school,” said Conroy. Their demands included PT every morning, military labs, and regular field training exercises in addition to a normal college workload.
This is the shared suffering Conroy alluded to in the quote above. With shared suffering came a shared understanding – a shared unity and camaraderie felt among the cadets.
Matt told a story about a party he attended in the fall of his freshman year. Hell-bent on testing his newfound freedom, Matt drank too much, mouthed off to the wrong person, and got his butt kicked.
The next day when he showed up to breakfast with a black eye, the older ROTC cadets asked Matt who did it. He told them, and they simply responded, “We’ll take care of it.”
Matt was surprised because he thought the seniors didn’t even know his name. Not only did they know who he was, they insisted on standing up for him. Such is the power of belonging to a group – the power of a shared understanding. When I asked Matt what he meant by a shared understanding, he replied, “Not an us versus them mentality so much as an us mentality. A sense of belonging. Human beings are tribal creatures, so having a higher group or a higher identity for us to associate with makes us feel very fulfilled.”
The higher group is the service program, and the higher identity is that of an American. Rather than Americans identifying themselves as Republicans or Democrats, city socialites or country bumpkins, we need to identify first as Americans. For that to happen we need an equalizing experience – we need a one-year service program.
Launching an institution of this magnitude is no easy task. Luckily, we’re not starting from scratch.
On April 21, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Serve America Act into law. This act expanded the scope of the AmeriCorps program, originally established in 1993. It established a new service corps to address clean energy, education, health care access, and veterans’ services. The bill also expanded the number of national volunteers from 75,000 to 250,000 and established an annual budget of approximately $1.4 billion.
According to former presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg’s website, the Serve America Act is being underserved. Mayor Pete argues for an increase in funding for the act so that all 250,000 of the originally intended slots can be filled. As Peace Corps and AmeriCorps statistics reflect, interest far outpaces current opportunity:
The acceptance numbers above are largely due to insufficient funding. According to a press release from May of 2019, AmeriCorps only received $560 million in funding – enough to accommodate 65,000 AmeriCorps members.
Buttigieg proposed the creation of a universal expectation of service whereby all 4 million annual US high school graduates will serve. The implementation would look like this:
Step one: Properly funding the Serve America Act so 250,000 people can serve annually;
Step two: Quadrupling that number by 2026;
Step three: Progressing to universal service of the above-mentioned 4 million annual graduates.
Buttigieg has the right idea, but his necessity to secure votes precludes him from taking the right action – universal service by a defined date.
My timeline is ten years. By 2030, we can have a country where every high school graduate completes one year of service to our country. In order to accomplish that goal in such a short time frame, it must be mandatory.
In the context of implementing big ideas, Yancey Strickler, founder of Kickstarter and author of the book This Could Be Our Future, explains what he calls the 30 Year Theory. This theory says it takes 30 years for a transformational change to take place in a society. In our podcast conversation, Strickler shared the story of the antiseptic method – the practice of washing your hands and sterilizing instruments before surgery – thereby making surgery safer. Surgeons rejected the idea of the antiseptic method when Joseph Lister introduced it in the 1860s because its introduction implied the surgeons were partially responsible for patient deaths.
Had the antiseptic method been adopted immediately, deaths related to surgery would’ve decreased immediately. But it wasn’t. The major reason for the length of the 30-year cycle is the people who created the problem. In order to adopt a solution, you must first admit a problem exists. In admitting a problem exists, you’re admitting, at least partially, that you created a problem. This admission requires a level of intellectual humility possessed by few.
The length of a generation isn’t set in stone, but it’s typically around 30 years. By the time a generation has passed – the generation who likely caused the problem – the solution can finally be widely adopted. Departure of the generation who caused the problem means less pushback against the solution. This phenomenon is commonly known as Planck’s Principle: A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Compulsory national service averts the pitfalls of Planck’s Principle and truncates the 30 Year Theory in a way that restores unity and produces numerous positive side effects.
Additional Positive Impacts of Compulsory Service
Restoring unity to the country is the primary goal of a national service program, but it’s not the only benefit. Positive programs have positive effects even beyond what we anticipate. Below are a few additional positive impacts of a compulsory national service program.
Compulsory service reduces future student debt
While national disunity is plaguing our social connections, student debt is shackling many college graduates.
National service isn’t a solution for those already carrying student debt. But crippling student debt can be avoided through better decision making. Two qualities that promote better decision making are age and experience, which will both be gained through national service. Better decision making is clearly necessary when we examine current student debt figures.
According to Nerdwallet, among individuals carrying student debt, the average figure is nearly $47,000.
Time magazine states more than 44 million Americans hold student debt, totaling more than $1.5 trillion in total debt. More than 2 million borrowers owe at least $100,000.
Those figures may not be so bad if you’re a lawyer, doctor, engineer, computer programmer, or somebody else with a high paying career. However, for those leaving college to become a teacher, social worker, police officer, or any profession with a near-median income, $47,000 is an enormous amount of debt. For graduates who finish college with no job prospects in their field of study, it can be devastating.
The student debt burden shared by those 44 million Americans has many negative implications, the largest of which is a lack of choices. When your monthly student loan payment tops $1,000, moving out of your parent’s house is challenging, let alone quitting your job to start a business or choosing a lower-paying job you find more rewarding.
The good news is that student debt burdens can be limited through several simple and accessible choices.
You can choose a major with a high chance of employment upon graduation. As Peter Thiel said in his book, Zero to One, “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it well. That is completely false. It does matter what you do. You should focus relentlessly at something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future.” Checking this box ensures you will have the means to repay the debt you incur.
You can spend your first two years of college at a community college. The cost of attending community college is often much cheaper than four-year schools. If you transfer to a four-year school to finish your bachelor’s degree, the diploma reads the same as if you started there freshman year. This decision could allow you to live at home for two more years, a decision that significantly cuts the cost of college.
You can ensure you finish college on time or early. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 41% of first-time, full-time undergraduates seeking a bachelor’s degree received them within 4 years. When annual college costs can exceed $60,000, taking extra time to complete a degree is costly.
While these choices are available to most 18-year-old high school graduates, the data clearly indicate graduates are making the wrong choices. At 18, an individual’s relationship with money is still developing alongside his/her decision-making capabilities.
In a society that stresses college as the default option – the only option that guarantees success – too many young adults make pressured, impulsive decisions that impact the rest of their lives.
This is where national service enters the picture.
One year of service, where graduates leave their hometowns to work on projects across the country, will breed maturity unlike any other experience. Young adults will experience different career options, different perspectives, and different people who can shed light on the implications of debt as an adult.
Rather than choosing a college major based on a career interest test, young adults will gain slightly more life experience and maturity upon which they can base a decision.
In addition to allowing time and experience for maturity to develop, national service will offer a tangible, cost saving benefit: transferable credit. Each participant will spend 50 weeks working for their country – nearly twice the time freshmen spend in their first year of classes (30 weeks). This time will be spent alongside other Americans from different backgrounds. Students will learn about different cultures, firsthand from each other. This time and experience will be transferable into any U.S. college for one full semester of credit, effectively reducing the time and financial cost of a four-year degree by more than 10%. A service year provides better experience and perspective than many a fickle first semester. As such, it will provide real financial value to those who pursue higher education.
Is this the cure-all for the student debt crisis? Of course not. It’s one piece of a unique solution that will have a tangible impact on the lives of many young Americans.
Compulsory service improves our aging infrastructure
In addition to reducing future student debt, compulsory service can improve our aging infrastructure. As of 2016, U.S. infrastructure was older than it’s ever been – averaging 24 years old. This figure has been steadily rising since the mid-1960s.
The most recent infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers graded America’s overall infrastructure at a D+.
No individual sector received a grade higher than a B.
Our infrastructure isn’t the only thing that’s aging. According to Joseph Kane, a Senior Research Associate at The Brookings Institute, “Just as our physical infrastructure systems are aging and in need of attention, so too are the workers who design, construct, operate, and oversee these systems.”
Nearly one quarter of America’s 17 million infrastructure workers will retire within the next ten years. In addition to retiring workers, infrastructure jobs are projected to increase nearly 10% due, in part, to the fast growing solar and wind industries. Policy shifts are required to ensure supply meets the increasing demand.
A compulsory national service program would encompass an infrastructure arm, where high school graduates are trained and deployed to staff infrastructure projects across the country. This is a two-fold win. An influx of lower cost labor would reduce the price tag on updating the country’s infrastructure. Additionally, the program would also train and prepare a new generation of infrastructure workers – a direct pipeline into a lucrative career devoid of student debt.
Compulsory service creates better educational outcomes
Compulsory service will increase not only the quality of our infrastructure, but also that of our children’s education. “As a teacher in the Teach for American program, I had about six jobs,” says Ben Gagne-Maynard, a Tennessee Department of Education policymaker. Ben and I had a conversation about his experience with Teach for America and as an education policymaker.
In addition to building lesson plans and teaching his students, Ben had to call parents when students didn’t show up. If a student was sick but couldn’t go home because his parents were working a double shift, Ben had to figure it out.
The district where Ben taught had one nurse for an elementary school, middle school, and high school. They had two or three behavior technicians serving students with many different behavioral problems. Frequently, Ben would also have to step in to calm a student having behavior issues. Teachers and principals, especially in districts served by Teach for America, are overworked and overwhelmed.
“There is a level of urgency and challenge [in urban schools] that isn’t present in suburban schools,” said Ben. “If you’re constantly operating in a crisis mode, it’s difficult to find the people who have the grit, selflessness, and positivity to continue to show up to work every day.”
Overwhelmingly, teachers in underperforming schools are in their first or second year teaching and are working under principals with minimal experience in administration. Couple the inexperience with a lack of resources and it’s hard for teachers to be successful.
These underlying issues also result in teacher turnover, which is twice as high in high-poverty schools than low-poverty schools. And according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic research, students who have continuity among their teachers and principals perform better than those who don’t.
To improve educational outcomes, Gagne-Maynard agrees we should increase the human resources available to teachers in underperforming districts. This is where national service will help. Rather than enlisting in Teach for America after college, students can serve as teaching assistants before going to college.
High school graduates would be perfect for these positions, as the positions wouldn’t require high levels of training. Service members would help care for sick students, call parents of tardy students, and remove misbehaving students from the classroom for a walk and a talk. This assistance will reduce the burden on the teachers and reduce the distractions to the other students.
This will increase the resources in classrooms and decrease workloads for the teachers – which will in turn decrease turnover and increase student performance.
Compulsory service decreases loneliness in the elderly
Another positive impact of compulsory service would be increased interaction between generations. As a society, we owe the most to our children and our elderly. Our children are the future and they deserve the best. Our elderly created this future, and they deserve respect, comfort, and happiness. Service programs will have a direct positive impact on the loneliness of the elderly, drastically improving their quality of life.
According to the 2018 Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index, nearly half of Americans (46%) report sometimes or always feeling alone. While Americans aged 72 and older aren’t the loneliest group of Americans, nearly 40% report feeling lonely.
The best way to decrease loneliness is through interaction. The same Cigna study indicates people who have daily meaningful in-person interactions score 20 points lower on the Loneliness Index than those who never have meaningful in person interactions. Service programs will put young adults into assisted living facilities or into the homes of elderly Americans to decrease loneliness and improve health. Research indicates loneliness and social isolation are risk factors for many health ailments, including Alzheimer’s, cognitive decline, anxiety, and depression. Whether the interaction is an hour playing a board game, playing music, or simply talking, meaningful interactions will easily form between generations.
These programs already exist. A New York Times article described an “artists in residence” program where music students received free room and board in exchange for performing concerts at a retirement community, accompanying the choir, and teaching residents about music “while getting to know them through happy hours and dining hall meals.” A system of compulsory service would expand similar programs across the country.
One person dedicated to fighting loneliness is Rob Lawless. At 29 years old, he’s more than four years into an ambitious project: spending one hour with 10,000 different people for no reason, with no expectations. As of February 2020, he’s met over 3,200 people. Rob and I sat down to have a conversation about the things he’s learned from his project.
“People will talk with me, and I’ll see that they’re not with me,” said Rob. “They’re more so watching their memories in the distance…I like the fact that sometimes I’m giving people the opportunity to reflect on their past in a way that they haven’t done before. And especially for the elderly, it was something they loved.”
Rob had the opportunity to spend an hour with several different elderly people. He documents each meeting on Instagram with a picture and a story about the person’s life.
“I found it was much more difficult to pick and choose what I would write about someone in their 90s,” said Rob. “There’s just so much material…It’s like somebody grabs you and brings you back in time, and you get these snippets of what life used to be like.”
If service were compulsory in America, similar programs would enjoy higher participation rates and positively impact more older Americans. There is no better way to learn about life in decades past than to hear about it from the people who lived it.
We’re currently missing out on a lot of value that would be realized through a compulsory service program.
Common Arguments Against Compulsory Service
Compulsory national service is a topic that hits a lot of nerves. Americans generally don’t like to be told what to do by their government, especially when it comes to something as invasive as a full year of service.
Opponents offer several convincing counterarguments to the idea of compulsory national service. I’ll break down each of them below and offer rebuttals for consideration.
Compulsory service doesn’t mean slavery
Compulsory national service is unconstitutional.
In many a Twitter debate or libertarian article about compulsory national service, opponents raise the 13th amendment as an obstacle. Violation of a Constitutional amendment is generally a strong argument against something. When we talk about the 13th amendment – the amendment responsible for ending slavery – the argument rightfully becomes especially emotional.
In its entirety, the 13th amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Opponents say compulsory national service is unconstitutional because it is servitude against the will of the citizen.
Compulsory service doesn’t compare to slavery in any way. While service would be mandatory for every high school graduate, it would be paid, it would last for a predetermined period (one year), and the individual would have a high level of autonomy in determining the type of service he or she would provide.
One of the best examples of compulsory national service in the United States is military conscription, more commonly known as the draft. Though the United States ended the draft in 1973 upon the transition to an all-volunteer military force, the Selective Service System is still in effect, and requires men to register in the event the draft is ever reinstated.
The draft originated in 1863 as the Enrollment Act, which required enrollment of men between the ages of 20 and 45 to meet the manpower needs of the Union Army. It was used subsequently in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The Constitutionality of the draft was upheld in Arver v. United States (1918) and has not since been overturned.
Similarly, community service as a requirement for high school graduation was also upheld in Immediato v. Rye Neck School District (1996). Daniel Immediato claimed the school district’s requirement of mandatory community service was in violation of his 13th amendment rights. The district required 40 hours of community service as a prerequisite for graduation. The specific type of service to fulfill the requirement was loosely defined and left a high level of autonomy to the student – just like the plan I propose. In other words, it was easy to fulfill. The court ruled the school district did not violate any of Daniel’s rights by requiring community service as a graduation requirement.
The above examples indicate the 13th amendment is not an impediment to compulsory national service.
I’m not making you join the Army
Nobody should have to serve in the military unless they volunteer.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not proposing compulsory military service. I disagree with compulsory military service. An all-volunteer force is what allows the United States military to be the best in the world.
War is a touchy subject, and the people who disagree with it shouldn’t be forced to fight it. When objectors are forced to wage war, it can compromise the integrity of the military and jeopardize the safety of the volunteers who signed up to be there.
Additionally, Time Magazine reports that 71% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are not even eligible for military service under the current guidelines. Physical fitness, drug use, body art, education level, and criminal record can all preclude an individual from service. Requiring military service is a foolish decision, as it would significantly decrease the quality of recruits, and by extension the quality of the military.
While military service shouldn’t be mandatory, it’s a great career path. If national service is mandatory, and military service is an option, more people will consider the opportunity of the military as a career – hopefully closing the gap between those with exposure to/knowledge of the military and those without.
Another common military misconception stems from how the military is portrayed in the media. A team of Navy SEALs storming Osama Bin Laden’s compound makes a much better movie than a day in the life of a construction equipment repairer.
As most of us know, movies aren’t representative of reality. Within the Army alone, there are more than 20 branches of service. Some branches engage in combat, some provide combat support, and some offer combat service support. Within the branches, job functions are further broken down into military occupational specialties, commonly referred to as MOS. The position referenced above, construction equipment repairer, is MOS 91L. The training and experience of a 91L would prepare him for many different civilian careers, including several different mechanic positions.
The military offers many personal and professional benefits. While military service shouldn’t be compulsory, making other service compulsory will expose military opportunities to those who otherwise would’ve never considered them. The earlier this happens in a student’s life, the more likely he or she is to prepare for it – doing things like maintaining higher levels of physical fitness, avoiding drugs and criminal activity, and maintaining higher grades. A defined end point illuminates a student’s necessary path forward.
“Many educators don’t really see the military as a smart option for kids, and I completely disagree with this,” said one citizen interviewed by the National Commission on Service. “The military instills values and knowledge, while providing opportunity for both the individual and our country. It is a wonderful choice for students, and I wish the educational system would promote it more.”
Compulsory service is not too big to implement
Opponents of compulsory national service argue it’s too big to implement and fairly enforce.
Many large government programs are run inefficiently or ineffectively, which is why I propose a decentralized approach for the service program.
First, compulsory national service is best implemented in steps. Between today and 2029, national service will be voluntary, but encouraged. As I laid out in my “Scaled implementation” section, we will use Pete Buttigieg’s plan as the foundation. We will properly fund the Serve America Act which will allow 250,000 high school graduates to participate in a service program annually.
The next step involves allowing other organizations to receive funding through the Serve America Act. Organizations will go through a simple approval process to become a “government approved service organization.” This certification process will allow the organizations to receive funding to employ high school graduates for one year as part of the compulsory national service program. By extending eligibility to any organization that wants to be certified, more opportunities will be available to young adults and the government won’t have to run the programs.
Through an independent organization approach, we will quadruple national service numbers from 250,000 annually to 1 million annually by 2026. As more opportunities arise, more high school graduates will want to serve. As more high school graduates serve, the stigma of taking a gap year will decrease and interest will increase. Service will become part of our culture.
The last step is requiring every graduate to serve by 2030. This is where decentralization comes into play again. Opponents worry about issues with enforcement, but enforcement can be simple if we put the onus on the citizen. A simple enforcement structure might look like this:
If a citizen chooses not to serve, they are permanently barred from receiving any government assistance (federal student loans, student debt forgiveness, unemployment, Medicaid/Medicare, SNAP or WIC, etc.).
If a citizen foregoes service, he or she will not be eligible to work for the federal government in any capacity – as a full-time employee or contractor. Companies employing individuals who didn’t serve will also be barred from bidding on federal contracts. Additionally, states and municipalities will be encouraged to limit employment to individuals who have completed a year of service.
Professional licensure will also require that individuals have completed a year of service. That means you won’t be able to work as a doctor, lawyer, accountant, plumber, electrician, or many other professions that require licenses unless you have served.
All colleges and universities will include one year of national service as a prerequisite for admission. If institutions are found to admit students without one year of national service, they will lose their federal funding. As these institutions receive $40 billion annually from the federal government, compliance will be a no-brainer.
Through a call to corporate citizenship, companies will be encouraged to require all their applicants to present a certificate of service. If service is a prerequisite for employment, young adults will begin to view it as the next logical step after high school.
How will we enforce this? Simple. All qualified service organizations will issue a certificate of completion, much like a college issues a degree. Individuals will be required to include the certificate of completion on applications for any government services, job applications, and college applications.
The service organizations will issue certificates and maintain records. The government never has to be involved. The government doesn’t have to maintain a central repository of data. Each service organization will maintain their own records. If a citizen loses his certificate, he returns to the service organization to produce another, much like you would go to your college registrar’s office to produce a transcript.
By empowering independent organizations and removing government responsibility, compulsory service will be both manageable to implement and easy to enforce.
In April of 2017, Heineken released their “Worlds Apart” commercial. It begins by showing short clips of people voicing their opinions on polarizing issues.
“Feminism today is man hating,” says one participant.
“I would describe myself as a feminist 100%,” says another.
“I do not believe that climate change exists,” flow the words from one man’s mouth.
“We are not taking enough action on climate change,” ring the words of another.
Unaware of each other’s opinions, the people were paired and given a set of instructions. Each pair worked together to build two stools. Then they sat together on the stools for part two of the experiment.
The pairs opened envelopes with the following prompts:
Describe what it is like to be you in five adjectives
Name three things you and I have in common
After in-depth discussions, obvious connections formed. Then the participants followed their next set of instructions, which led them to build a bar, find a cooler full of Heineken, and sit down at the bar with their beers.
Before cracking the beers, the moderator told the participants to stand for a short film. As the participants stood next to their newfound friends, they watched the clips of each other’s opinions on the polarizing topics. Each person looked uncomfortable.
As the clips ended, the moderator left them with a choice: walk away, or sit, share a beer, and discuss their differences. Each pair sat down together to share a beer, proving the following point:
It’s hard to hate up close.
It’s hard to hate when you toil together toward a common goal.
It’s hard to hate when you bed as a group in a bunkhouse.
It’s hard to hate when you break bread and share soup after a long day raking leaves and shoveling dirt.
It’s hard to hate when you swap stories of your families and your childhood.
It’s hard to hate when you share your similarities rather than dwell on your differences.
Just like the men sharing wine from the Viking helmet in Pamplona, Spain, the people in the Heineken commercial shared a beer and bonded rather than fought. They each shared a struggle. They each shared vulnerability. They exposed the most sensitive parts of their lives, threw their identities into the open, and made room to understand the identities of others. In telling their stories, working together on a common goal, and sitting shoulder to shoulder clinking the necks of their Heineken bottles, they modeled the simplicity of turning conflict into closeness.
America needs a catalyst to transform conflict into closeness. We need compulsory national service – the wine in our Viking helmet, the Heineken on our handmade bar, the people by our sides sharing experiences, struggles, and the closeness that kills hate.
The Write of Passage Fellowship is designed to help a small group of intellectually curious minds to create world class essays on a topic of their choice.
With the rise of the internet and tools for mass communication, we’re witnessing a new generation of writers and content creators. It has helped me build my own audience, a process that I then systematized to create the Write of Passage course as we know it today.
The news doesn’t dive deep enough. The problems of the modern world are too complex for short articles with clickbait headlines. We plan to nudge the conversation in a more thoughtful direction. Each essay will analyze events with the context required to communicate nuance and help the reader understand them.
Each fellow receives mentorship, professional editing, and feedback from cohort participants.
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