By Ciro Scotti When I came home from the Army 30 years ago, I remember walking into a long-hair tavern in the city of my birth and getting the sort of reception usually reserved for a dog who just rolled in a dead squirrel. Wearing one of the flight jackets that GIs liked to personalize with emblems and mottoes, I drew glares of disgust, especially, I imagined, because of one patch on my arm -- the American flag.
Oh, what a difference three decades and a bunch of joyless nutcases who think they have God on their side can make. These days, as a heady nationalism swirls through the country, it's tough to find an animate or inanimate object that isn't adorned with the Stars and Stripes. With such a surge of patriotism, the time couldn't be more right to resurrect a notion that has been in disrepute since the Vietnam War: compulsory national service.
We have been told by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the war to bring Osama bin Laden to justice and disarm other zealots who would target our republic will be a different type of conflict than any we have ever fought. And it seems likely that other immediate-future combat will be also be carried out by elite units equipped with high-tech weapons and backed by massive air power.
QUICK TOUR. That argues against a military draft that creates an enormous standing army of shave-tail grunts newly plucked from the bosoms of their families, the halls of academia, and the counters of McDonald's. But if the U.S. is to remain the country it has been for the past four weeks, a mechanism is still needed that breaks down the barriers that have created so many little Americas.
National service doesn't have to steal the best years of a young person's life. It could be relatively short -- say, 18 months -- and it doesn't necessarily have to interrupt anyone's education. Requiring that you give the nation a year and a half of service between the ages of 18 and 28 would even allow for graduate school.
The options for national service could be broadened, too. A recruit could chose the military (active or reserves) or an expanded Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, which already serves low-income communities and works with national organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the Red Cross. And new forms of service could be created. One might be a Homeland Defense Force that secures airports and has a visible presence at national monuments and even big malls and amusement parks.
AMERICAN GLUE. National service is about more than serving your country. It's about meeting your country. It's about sharing purpose and pain and breaking down the barriers that have balkanized the nation into ethnic, social, and religious interest groups. That's why it should also be a prerequisite for citizenship for anyone 30 and under.
I'm not saying the draft was a wonderful idea or the Army was an uplifting experience. But forcing young men to put on a uniform, endure boot camp, and then co-exist with a startlingly diverse group of their fellow Americans taught lessons of inclusion and equality, qualities that have made this country stronger and more cohesive.
On the streets of New York this awful autumn, it didn't take long for vendors to appear, selling little flags on a stick for a couple of bucks. It's easy to buy one and wave it and feel good about being part of a country that won't be cowed by terror. But there ought to be more of a commitment to being an American than plunking down the cost of a Starbucks coffee for the Stars and Stripes. Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BW Online