On Veterans Day we rouse ourselves to an unusual patriotic fervor, waving flags, watching the marchers, perhaps even laying a wreath at the grave of a veteran — known or unknown — to give our thanks. Then we go home and resume our daily chores without looking back.
What can we do to really honor those that have served for their country in war? I wondered last Tuesday. The answer was not long in coming — reinstate the draft, make service to our country obligatory for every citizen.
Okay, wait, I said service — not necessarily the military. The draft I have in mind would require two years of service either in the military or in civilian life. If you do not want to go to war you can choose among dozens of alternatives. I am thinking of the WPA projects that — under Roosevelt — employed writers, artists and musicians to create works of art during their time of service; or the Civilian Conservation Corps that put people to work building railroads, bridges, public buildings; or the Peace Corps or Volunteers in Service to America which still deploy young American men and women all over the world to provide assistance where it is needed.
Any of these service programs offer untold advantages to our country and our citizens. One of these is training in the skills needed to survive and thrive in everyday life. I saw dozens of young men come aboard the ship on which I served during the Viet Nam war and begin their tour without any discernible ambition or discipline. Within the short space of a few months, they knew how to dress and present themselves and they were learning skills that would benefit them wherever they went in the future — from painting and chipping to advanced electronics and mechanics. Looking around today, I see many young men and women who could benefit from such an experience.
And during the Vietnam War, the draft — having to put your life on the line to further the geopolitical policies of Mr. Johnson or Mr. Nixon — caused Americans to think deeply about why we were at war and, eventually, to oppose it and bring it to an end. If everyone was susceptible to service in Iraq or Afghanistan I am certain that our public debate about these wars would be much livelier.
Another advantage of requiring service is that we could begin to rewire and repave our country which is now suffering from an infrastructure malaise that will cost, according to some estimates, more than a trillion dollars to fix. I am not an expert, but I think that figure could be cut at least by a half if we had access to the hands and minds of millions of young men and women to do the job. There is an intangible advantage as well, the sense of team work — that we are all in this together — that arises from doing a needed job with others from all the creeds, colors and walks of life that make us up as a people.
I realize that John F. Kennedy’s ringing words have been so often repeated that they are almost trite — yet I can’t help think they still contain deep meaning: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Perhaps, come some future Veterans Day (maybe it will be called Service Day or the like), we will no longer see lines of bystanders cheering the few who parade our main streets. We will have joined them in a swelling throng to celebrate our own — and our national — gift of time and sweat to our country and thereby change forever the meaning of the word patriotism.
Sam Low lives in Oak Bluffs and contributes frequently to the Gazette.