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National Service program would unify nation
National Service program would unify nation
Service program would unify nation
By S. Arthur Spiegel
Some 10 years ago, I began espousing the need for a universal service program in the United States to bridge the widening gulf in our society between those who have the good things in life -- health, education, good jobs, comfortable homes, etc. -- from those who are desperate to obtain a share of these good things.
Unfortunately, the racial divide in our country mostly tracks this gulf between the haves and the have nots.
Today there is a greater urgency brought on by the condition we find ourselves in in Iraq. Whatever may have been our perception about racism a few months ago has changed. Where before many Iraqis welcomed us as liberators, today the majority view us as occupiers, and many former friends or allies among the Iraqi people have joined the insurgents in seeking our withdrawal.
We are beginning to view them as the enemy and to lump them together regardless of their tribal, religious or racial background. A new racism is developing where we see all Middle Easterners as potential enemies, whether American citizens, legal aliens or citizens of our former allies from the Near East.
My proposal some years ago when we were at peace was that we adopt universal service for all of our young people, both men and women, as one way of bridging the gap of cultural, religious and racial differences, and to bring us together. I entitled my thesis as "Now is the Time."
Our country was at the zenith of its power and prosperity, employment was at its peak. The welfare rolls were declining and crime seemed to be dropping. This was a time when state legislatures and Congress were debating what to do with the surpluses generated by the booming economy. I proposed then that it was time to do something that would have a lasting impact and help to fulfill the promise of our country as a free society with equal opportunity for all.
I proposed a program that would require every man and woman, after completing high school or its equivalent, to give a year to 18 months of service to the nation, being compensated at a rate similar to that of the military.
There would be no deferments or exemptions, and everyone would have to participate in a basic training program similar to that of military boot camp. Assignments would be made on need, as determined by a newly created Human Resource Agency, to the various branches of the military and foreign and domestic Peace Corps, Civilian Conservation Corps, health care organizations, and wherever men and women power was needed to replace and rebuild the infrastructure of the nation.
The same consideration favoring a national service draft back then is even more pressing today.
When veterans of World War II returned, they came home to a very different welcome from that received by veterans of previous wars. The concept of the GI Bill developed because it was felt that pensions and bonuses would not work for veterans, and it was more important to provide a college tuition and home loans for military personnel headed for civilian life.
The GI Bill also completely transformed the class structure of America. For the first time, young people, regardless of background, had a realistic expectation of going to whatever college would admit them. The change in American society fostered by the GI Bill led to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. When the GI Bill ran out in 1952, it had cost more than $14 billion, but for every dollar invested, four were returned to the economy. Thus, the initial investment in the GI Bill has been more than repaid, and it strengthened our nation.
I believe that today requiring young people, regardless of their background or station in life, to live in a basic training environment and to serve their country for a year or so on a minimum wage scale, but with opportunities provided by a GI Bill-type program, would have many similar positive effects. Contributing to the teamwork to make the assigned project successful would have untold benefits, not only for them individually, but to the group and the nation as a whole.
My proposal fell on deaf ears. Today a different attitude is prevalent because of the serious military shortages facing our nation, as well as preparedness. Today America has changed. Not only is racism and poverty still a very real part of our country, we recognize it feeds on ignorance, hostility and lack of communication, as well as hunger, envy and greed. But the complexion of America is not as foreseen by our forefathers. Today we have citizens from the Pacific Rim, from the Indian Subcontinent, and from South and Central America, and many from the Near East and Africa, among others. In a few years, Caucasians in America may well be in the minority, and there are some who feel that the relationship between our young people and adults is strained.
We all recognize that it is not easy for people of different backgrounds, with what appear to be strange habits and philosophies, to live together and respect each other's points of view. But I believe that a bond developed among all of us who served in the military during and after World War II, regardless of our ethnic, racial, religious background and economic status. These experiences in the military, starting with the basic training, were a common thread that made it possible for all of us to relate to each other at that time, as well as today.
Today, although we might still be the most powerful nation in the world, relations with our allies and others are at a low point. Our prosperity has faded and jobs have been shipped abroad, and unemployment may be rising. Surplus revenues generated from our booming economy have disappeared and, not only are racism and poverty a continuing national disgrace, but we may be faced with a serious shortage of military personnel.
Congress has been quietly debating a law proposed by U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York and South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings called the "Universal Service Act." This would expand the draft to include women, to require two years' national service, not only in the military, but also to work in conservation, health care, education, etc. The bill essentially would require citizens to commit two years to the federal government. The bill states that its purpose is to provide for the common defense by requiring all young persons in the United States, including women, to provide a period of military service or a period of civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and Homeland Security, as well as other purposes. Because of the War on Terror, Congress has the constitutional authority to enact a bill such as the Rangel/Hollings Universal Service Act followed by a GI-type program. I wholeheartedly support this legislation, not only for the national defense, but also for the dialogue that it will engender.
With more patience with others and better understanding that our strength as a nation lies in our diverse ideas and background, we may be able to achieve our ideals or goals more readily if we all participate in a national service program designed to protect our nation.
S. Arthur Spiegel is a U.S. district judge based in Cincinnati. This column was excerpted from remarks to the Harvard Club on May 25.