– June 20, 2020
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soldiers, marching

A lot of angry voices are combing through American history to ferret out people who tolerated violations of basic human liberty. The irony here is that the angry voices seem unaware of the threat of a comeback for a form of involuntary servitude that is rising right under their noses. 

I refer to “mandatory national service,” which differs from plantation slavery mainly in the sanctimony of the latter-day overseers who hide under cover of a euphemism. Either way, forcing people to perform labor under threat of violence is involuntary servitude, pure and simple.

“National service” was covered sympathetically and uncritically in a recent Christian Science Monitor article, perhaps the last publication where one would expect to read such a horror story. The article was prompted by a report issued in March by the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. The report got passing attention mainly for its recommendation that draft registration be extended to women, but there was a lot more, as if doubling the pool of targets for future enslavement weren’t enough.

The Commission’s report ended with no fewer than 49 recommendations. Like the work of most commissions, their report may be shelved and forgotten. But its ominous recommendations will likely carry some weight going forward, so they should be stripped of their sugarcoating and translated into plain English.

  • The Commission’s stated goal: “Every American inspired and eager to serve.” Translation: every American must fall in line, mindlessly eager to obey power-hungry politicians and bureaucrats.
  • Integrate “social service” more closely with military service. Translation: militarize a vast new segment of the population for possible recruitment into a future brownshirt army.
  • “A revolutionary and inclusive approach to service for Americans, beginning with comprehensive civic education and service learning starting in kindergarten, and service-year opportunities so ubiquitous that service becomes a rite of passage for millions of young adults …” Translation: a barrage of propaganda and indoctrination that would make any dictator smile.

Aside from promoting draft registration for women, the Commission tiptoes around the issue of compulsion. “Policymakers should make every effort to promote voluntary approaches to service, reserving mandatory service as a last resort,” they intone. The implication is clear: we’ll use force as soon as we can get away with it.

Now let’s dispose of the anti-concept “national service.” There is no acting entity called “the nation” to be served. The reality: what is called national service means doing the bidding of the particular politicians and bureaucrats who hold the reins, issue the orders and reap whatever sadistic satisfaction they gain from so doing. Another reality: the plight of front-line overseers who have to handle surly conscripts who can’t be kicked out.

What has “national service” done for us in the past? Here are three twentieth-century examples:

  • Drafted men became cannon fodder in World War I, an adventure that was supposed to last just a few weeks, instead dragging on for 19 months following American entry. It was going to make the world safe for democracy but it actually laid the groundwork for Hitler. It gave the proto-fascist Woodrow Wilson an excuse to stifle dissent, jail recalcitrant editors, seize the railroads, and otherwise do all he could to crush liberty.
  • The Civilian Conservation Corps was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. While voluntary, it was run by Army officers and had militaristic overtones. Indeed, but for the coming of World War II, the CCC might have evolved into FDR’s equivalent of Stalin’s Young Pioneers.
  • Draftees were fodder for Lyndon Johnson’s utterly unnecessary, yea insane, Vietnam War, so destructive to both Americans and Vietnamese. But out of that war emerged a healthy distrust of government and a suspension (not abolition) of the military draft. President Nixon deserves credit for bringing the suspension, as urged by Milton Friedman. But post-Vietnam outrage and distrust of government is fading, sadly, and “Selective Service” remains.

I hesitate to add that community service can be a good thing when it’s local and voluntary. Teenagers can benefit from volunteer projects organized by their school or church, preferably where the beneficiaries and the volunteers have personal contact. Old people can benefit from mentoring students, delivering meals and the like—at a local level.

But the greatest opportunities to benefit your fellow citizens are outwardly selfish. Are you young and talented and genuinely eager to serve others? My advice is to develop your skills, find your passion, start a business, build a better mousetrap and get rich. I mean stinking, filthy rich. Then in your later years you can donate generously if you so desire. And remember that no matter how much you donate, your main contribution will have been the products you created and the employment you provided.

Warren C. Gibson

Warren Gibson

Warren Gibson is retired from two careers: as an engineer and a lecturer in economics at San Jose State University.

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