Why compulsory service is a good idea. 16

I am currently at the convention of the National Collegiate Honors Council. As you can imagine, when a group of educators get together we tend to talk about educational and therefore social concerns. Last night was our annual dinner with our CIC colleagues and I again shared my thoughts on what I think could be positively transformative for our society: compulsory service.


Every person, male and female, would serve 12-24 months in government or community service after graduating from high school or reaching 18 years of age. This service would be either in military service or community service and would meet a number of needs.

  • Military – For the forseeable future, whether we like it or not, we need a strong military presence around the world. We also need more people, plain and simple, since we have a relative few doing so much the burden upon them is becoming unbearable and the consequences catastrophic. Furthermore, we are in danger of creating a “warrior class” where only those who are either trying to move out of poverty or who are children of military parents go into the service. The result is a distancing for most Americans from the cost of protecting our country and our freedoms.
  • Disaster Relief – We currently depend upon our military, particularly our National Guard, to bring aid within the US such as after Katrina. While some security is needed in those circumstances most of the services provided would be best served by relief workers, specifically trained for such duties. (Our military is too often asked to provide relief and peace keeping work for which they are not in fact trained.) These workers could also be deployed abroad. Currently existing programs such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps would be appropriate collaborators.
  • Community Service – There are various needs in our society that could be well served by those opting out of military service. For example, teaching English to non-native speakers, park service, construction work, childcare, and so on.


  • Maturity and skills development – Regardless of whether one entered military service or community service at the end of their duty these young folks, now 20 years or so, would have acquired important skills including discipline and training in a vocation. For those who would then enter college, a “GI Bill” would be in place, would be at a much greater level of maturity and better able to appreciate and use their education.
  • Talented Workforce – Many young people today don’t go to college and do not have access to training or opportunities for jobs because of their lack of training. Having completed their duty these individuals would have appropriate skills so that those who do not go on for higher education they would be better prepared to enter the work force.
  • Labor – Our country is in great need of good labor, whether it is in the military, rebuilding our infrastructure, or in community service.

This would be a dramatic change for the US and not one that expect would be terribly well received. Some would say it smacks of socialism but so far there is no serious attempt to deal with these various issues. This single (yet complex, I admit) solution would address a wide variety of needs and would benefit all parties. Other countries have done something very similar (I first learned of it studying German language in Germany, taught by someone who was doing their community service)1 and we would be able to learn from their mistakes and strengths. It is a grand plan whose time has come.

Now, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain would either of you like to take this up?

  1. I believe it is still in place. The only article I could find is from 2004 when they were considering stopping the draft and one of the concerns was that the community service would have to end as well. []

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16 thoughts on “Why compulsory service is a good idea.

  • steph

    Yikes. I want my children to have the same choices I did when I was 18 (or 17). I went to university and they want to too. And then did the big OE (overseas experience). I did part time menial jobs to pay for the studies and the plane tickets. I wouldn’t have wanted to do military service (which is against my principles) or full time community service. That would have been suffocating. Your idea could be a subsitute for going on an unemployment benefit after leaving school but it doesn’t sound very ‘socialist’ to me. I would have thought it would be just the thing the Republicans would love.

  • Chris Brady Post author

    Mike – mothers wouldn’t need to worry (at least not more than usual) if the child chose something other than the military.

    Steph – your children would have the same choices you did they would just have some of them deferred a bit. Furthermore, many tens of thousands of young people who are not as privileged as you and your children would now have MORE choices than they currently have. Remember, so many young people in our country do NOT have the option of going to college now and have few other choices. And many of those who do go to college simply aren’t ready for the experience but go because it is the “done thing.”

    I doubt that many Republicans would love this. We can wait for my brother to reply, but most have fairly strong libertarian streaks that would make such governmental programs anathema to them.

    I appreciate the comments, I really do. It means that people are reading the proposal and thinking about it. Thank you!

  • Jim Getz

    I think it’s a danger to be pulling your humanitarian and military personnel from the same pool. It’s too easy for the gov to mix the two together (thinking already of the force from blue to green in the current military). To easy for the left hand to known what the ride hand is doing.

  • Chris Brady Post author

    But that is the point Jim, the pool would be our entire US population. That is pretty diverse and when entering into service they would choose whether they wanted humanitarian or military service. At the moment the government is trying to retool portions of our military to do things that they did not sign up for and that they were not trained to do. Far better to have a new “force” of people who WANT to do these other jobs.

    (The government has started to move this direction, I cannot remember the name of the program now, but they are due to mobilize the first group soon. These people will do development sorts of jobs.)

  • steph

    I don’t live in America, I live in a socialist country where perhaps we have more opportunities. I don’t believe in compulsary service but we have voluntary schemes like this for school leavers. I think to demand everybody to defer university or training opportunities for your organised national service is an enormous mistake.

  • Chris Brady Post author

    Steph – last time I checked New Zealand wasn’t strictly a socialist country. (I am making that assumption based upon your IP since you didn’t reveal your home country.) I don’t think there are necessarily more opportunities than in the US but because of our size and other issues there is greater diversity of opportunity and dichotomy in incomes than in many other countries. (I always find it very disingenuous when we are compared with Sweden or Finland for example. Apples and lingonberries.)

    You may feel it is an enormous mistake but it worked extremely well, always with exceptions, of course, in Germany for 40 years. Switzerland, Finland, and others as well. Germany would be the better analogy in this case.

    Can anyone offer a better unified solution to the variety of needs and concerns? There may be one out there and certainly we need it. Any suggestions?

  • steph

    Why not voluntary? A scheme like that is not needed here and neither would it be welcome. I wonder what your definition of socialism is. Last time I checked, we considered ourselves socialist. I understand some Americans muddle it up with communism.

  • Chris Brady Post author

    Well I can speak only for the people I know and we tend to understand the difference between socialism and communism. I too would wonder about your definition of socialism. Last time I checked New Zealand had socialist political parties, particularly if one describes Labour as “socialist” (then one could also argue that the Democratic Party in the US is “socialist”) but it is a free market and free trade economy. (NZ is listed in the Top Ten Index of Economic Freedom by the Heritage Foundation). These are all hallmarks of a capitalist system. Socialist tendencies and influences? Sure, we have the same in the US, but a socialist state? It doesn’t look like that to me. By the way, many Kiwis I know do not consider themselves socialist. My guess is that Kiwis are as diverse as Americans.

  • Steve Brady

    While I haven’t taken the time to read all the comments yet, I wanted to say a hearty “Hear, Hear” to the post, and specifically, this statement you wrote:
    Furthermore, we are in danger of creating a “warrior class” where only those who are either trying to move out of poverty or who are children of military parents go into the service. The result is a distancing for most Americans from the cost of protecting our country and our freedoms.

    I have been a proponent of compulsory service (draft, if you will) for many years, and quite simply, because I am afraid of the creation of two Americas: those that have served, and those they serve. The problem is more than simply a class struggle. When we have two “nations” like that we end up with competing social mores. We have a military where adultery is prosecuted not simply for adultery but for maintaining good order and discipline (The Kelly Flynn case) and a society that not only sees nothing wrong with the act (an AF Officer who had an affair with an enlisted troop’s husband–after receiving an order to stop) and then actually attacks the military for “victimizing” the officer.

    Part of the strength of America following WWII was the fact that, regardless of the political views (and they were as varied then as now) everyone had either served, or been touched directly by those who had. They knew, they KNEW the cost.

  • Chris Brady Post author

    I am not surprised you agree with that statement. You have made it yourself more than once. 😉 I hope you don’t feel that I have “plagiarized” your, rather I have been positively influenced by you. I do trace my thoughts back to before those conversations we have had about “the warrior class” and take full responsibility for arguing for a civil service as well.

  • steph

    I think our ‘right wing’ recognise they are only centrist by American standards. Naturally all countries have a diversity of opinions but ours all verge a little to the left of yours. That is, our Labour Party is left of your Democrat Party and held even further left and accountable by the left wing smaller parties it currently shares power with (namely the Greens). The point is however that your scheme, designed for Americans, would go down like a lead balloon in this country. The only supporters would possibly be Act Party supporters, currently polling at 1% – possibly.

  • Chris Brady Post author

    Steph – there is no doubt that much of the rest of the world makes our political spectrum seems extremely narrow and center-right in comparison. And for what it is worth, I don’t believe that my proposal would go down all that well in the US either.