Our most urgent cure: National service
Divisiveness is undermining our national strength. Whether to wear a face mask to mitigate the risk of a deadly coronavirus has become a proverbial lightning rod. Social media and news reports are filled with daily examples of civil acrimony triggered by COVID-19. And this incendiary divisiveness now seems to define every political and public policy question, from who is better-suited to be our president for the next four years to how to most effectively advance the cause of equality and opportunity in this nation.
Along with three of my four brothers, I devoted the first 22 years of my professional life to serving our nation; our combined service totals nearly 100 years. For me it was as an Army officer. I didn’t love everything about the Army, but what I did love about the Army — the immense sense of reward in working with men and women of incredibly different backgrounds to pursue a common cause — eclipsed its downsides.
Indeed, as I frequently tell my law students, although the U.S. military is far from perfect, for me it came as close to the ideal of a society that judges people based on the “the content of their character,” rather than the color of their skin, or gender, or faith, or socioeconomic background, as any I’ve ever encountered as an American. An institution that demonstrates commitment to the values of equality and opportunity is inspirational, and these values are central to our national unity. Even when the Army fails to live up to America’s expectations, as with a surge in reported sexual assaults in the ranks, it is capable of embracing the painful, constructive criticism. That’s a principle of effective leadership central to mission effectiveness.
My brothers and I often disagree about politics, but two common threads unite us and lead us to respect each other’s arguments. First, while we may disagree on means, we almost always agree on the end: a government that advances the cause of freedom, justice, equality and opportunity for all Americans. Second, we share a deep concern that the divisiveness in our nation often results from an inability of many Americans to appreciate the value of fellow citizens who disagree with them, and an accordant lack of empathy for why they disagree. In other words, if division is a symptom, a significant cause is the lack of a common sense of connection as Americans.
Why is it that I can disagree so strongly with my brothers, and with many other former brothers and sisters in arms, without questioning their patriotism? I may find their positions perplexing (and I know they feel the same about mine) but there is common respect, which blossoms from the knowledge that we are indeed bound by common experiences in the service of our nation. We understand the sacrifice that has earned us the privilege of expressing our divergent views. Our criticism of government, or of opposition party positions, is singularly motivated by our common love for the country we served.
Most Americans, however, are never asked to serve their country alongside others who share fundamentally different life experiences and beliefs. Is it surprising, then, that the notion of collective sacrifice for the good of society is viewed, quite erroneously, as an intrusion on individual liberty?
Maybe the experience of sharing the burden of a military deployment with your teammates makes being asked to wear a mask to protect public health seem trivial. Maybe the experience of being in a room filled with new recruits who actually have to be taught how to brush their teeth leads to an empathy for those in our society who grew up in far more austere households than we did. Maybe the experience of working for a woman battalion commander and an African American brigade commander breaks down deeply ingrained stereotypes and leads to a recognition that race or gender are irrelevant when assessing the value and potential of fellow citizens.
And maybe being required to devote a few years of your life to the common cause of our national well-being lays a foundation of devotion to the values of this nation that will withstand the winds of divisiveness for decades to come.
In the midst of our current national plight we need no reminder that there are many ways in which mandatory national service could be leveraged. The military is the traditional form such service takes, but it need not be the only form. What is essential is that the requirement be universal, with limited exemptions; that it involves living and working in a part of the country far removed from where inductees reside; and that it requires communal living for the duration of their experience.
Our nation needs citizens bound together by at least one common experience in their formative years. It is time to mandate national service.
Geoffrey S. Corn is the Vinson & Elkins Research Professor of Law at South Texas College of Law in Houston and a retired U.S. Army Judge Advocate officer.