The Case for Universal Service

Today, the burden of defending our nation is carried by an increasingly smaller segment of our population.   Even though all Americans benefit from the protections provided by the military, only 1 percent of the American population currently makes the sacrifice of laying down life and limb for our country.  Far too many are being forced into repeated tours of duty, sometimes as many as six deployments. This repeated combat exposure to our troops is why 25 percent of America’s active duty military personnel suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is why the Army’s current suicide rate is far above the civilian rate at 22-per-100,000. The rate for the Marine Corps is even higher.


When I served in the U.S. Army in the 1950s, the total number of active duty soldiers was 1.5 million.  In those days, new recruits were brought into the service either by the draft, or by volunteering, as I did.  The draft ended in 1973, leaving today’s army and all other branches of the military as all-volunteer.  Today’s army numbers approximately 500 thousand, one third the size when I served.  And even though we are currently engaged in the longest running war (now more than ten years with no end in sight) in the history of the nation, we are fighting with the smallest army in the nation’s modern history.  This means that fewer and fewer troops are serving in more and more deployments.  Because of these multiple deployments, these troops face greater odds of being wounded or killed in combat, or of returning with some form of disability than ever before.


In recent times, with the U.S. facing persistently high unemployment, the military has become a major source of training and employment for many Americans.   And since non-white Americans experience a higher rate of unemployment than do white Americans, the composition of the army as well as the rest of the military has seen a marked change in its racial composition.  As a result, Americans of color bear a disproportionate burden of the fighting and dying simply because opportunities in civilian life are not available to them.



For this reason and many others, the U.S. should institute a system of universal service where all young people must perform two years of national service, either in a branch of the military or in a civilian program such as the peace corps or AmeriCorps,  a network of nonprofit community organizations and agencies that take on assignments in the fields of education, public safety, healthcare and environmental protection. Countries such as Mexico, Finland, Switzerland, Brazil and many others around the world have already implemented such programs.


As U.S House of Representatives member Charles Rangel, himself a decorated Korean war hero, points out in his Universal National Service Act, originally introduced in 2003 after his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the legislation provides an opportunity for all of our children to be able to say with dignity that they honorably served their nation.  He notes that for the civilian service, we wouldn’t be starting from scratch, but instead building on the current community service infrastructure that we have through national programs like AmeriCorps or other local initiatives. From helping to rebuild New Orleans, providing security at our nation’s ports, or working in areas of extreme poverty in this country, there are plenty of jobs that will not only help our young adults learn about their country, but also provide them with invaluable experiences and training that will enrich their lives.   Just like the Peace Corps, but for our nation, the universal national service would a positive bonding experience for an entire generation to give back to their country. 


Most importantly, participating in a universal service program would not only mature our children, but it would give them an enhanced sense of community or “skin in the game,” an important element missing in the empty rhetoric of so many self-proclaimed patriots and flag-wavers, many of them in positions of  national leadership.  If all of our elected leaders knew they and their families had to have skin in the game and couldn’t dodge heir responsibilities with endless service deferments or fake claims of injuries and disabilities, you can be sure they would not be so inclined to get us into so many unnecessary wars.