A trip back in time: My brother’s friend Stephen got the news on a Sunday in 1967 that his father was Missing in Action (MIA) in Vietnam. Stephen’s dad was a fighter pilot, and for two years our whole Catholic grammar school prayed for his safe return. Then my family moved to another state, and my brother lost touch with Stephen. But I remember scouring the lists of returning POWs when the Vietnam War officially ended, looking for Stephen’s father’s name. I never saw it.
It was not unusual during my childhood for a family to have a loved one in harm’s way in Vietnam. Many of my friends’ brothers and uncles and cousins got drafted and shipped out to the front lines far away in Asia. Our nation was at war, and everyone was worried about someone. I remember my mother checking her list of all my male cousins’ birthdays during the draft lottery, which was televised, and which determined the order of potential draftees. The war’s effect, unless you had friends in high places, was pervasive.
Fast forward to today: The discontinuation of the military draft has meant that far fewer families carry the burden of any armed conflict the U.S. wages. Currently, military personnel comprise less than 1 percent of the American population. The all-volunteer force began in 1973, largely in response to public outcry against compulsory service during the unpopular Vietnam War. As a consequence, gone are the days when typical families had someone in the service. Gone also are the days when the entire country was invested in war, and thus endured the sacrifice and loss of war. Today our military commits to long campaigns in faraway countries of which most of us are unaware. We don’t have anyone or anything at stake, and so we are able to escape the suffering and worry of the families who do.
Saturday being Veterans Day, it seems an apt time to posit that our nation would be more unified and perhaps more peace-loving if every young person had to report for mandatory national service.
I mean, if Wonder Woman can do it, why can’t we? Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress who played Wonder Woman in this year’s blockbuster film, put in her two years of compulsory military service at the age of 20, as all young men and women in Israel are required to do. While I do not advocate that all young people serve in the military, I do support the many civilian ways that young men and women could contribute to our nation. Given the option, some might choose to be tutors or community organizers or fulfill other public servant roles. And mandatory service, from which no one is exempt, might make us more careful when committing our troops to conflict.
Growing up Catholic, my daughters were required to put in a number of community service hours before they were confirmed. They helped out in the church nursery or with family night socials or at the monthly food pantry and community meal that fed the less fortunate. My daughters sometimes grumbled about having to do these things, but I believe the experiences formed their social conscience. Performing community service turned them into more compassionate and selfless young adults, and also helped them appreciate their blessings. Mandatory national service might give these same benefits to young people who do not grow up in an organized religion. And a program of national service that observes gender parity might even abate and heal the gender discrimination that is still evident in our society.
The idea of good citizenship seems quaint in our times, but maybe we need a return to the words of President Kennedy in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” We rarely ask that question these days. We scoff at the ideal of public service. We are post-citizens, looking out only for ourselves. The country is an afterthought.
I don’t know if Stephen’s father, or his father’s remains, ever came home from Vietnam. I think of Stephen and his family every Veterans Day, and I pray that we honor all of our veterans, present and past. May God bless and keep them, and may we also be mindful of the ways our young people can carry on that tradition of proud service to our nation.