Mandatory National Service – Top 3 Pros and Cons
Mandatory national service (also called compulsory service) is a requirement, generally issued by the federal government, that people serve in the military or complete other works of service, most often as young people but age requirements vary. Modern propositions for compulsory service in the United States include young Americans serving in the military or working on civilian projects such as teaching in low-income areas, helping care for the elderly, or maintaining infrastructure, among other ideas.
Proposals in the United States to implement compulsory service trace back to the 1800s. Perhaps the most popular early proposal can be found in the novel Looking Backward (1888) by journalist Edward Bellamy. In what would now be called a “utopian fantasy,” Bellamy imagines a society in which mandatory service “is regarded as so absolutely natural and reasonable that the idea of its being compulsory has ceased to be thought of.”
In 1906, American philosopher and psychologist William James, while arguing for pacifism, suggested the conscription of men for service not in the military but in civic, social, and humanitarian programs: “The military ideals of hardihood and discipline would be wrought into the growing fiber of the people; no one would remain blind, as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man’s relations to the globe he lives on and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.”
More recently, between 2003 and 2013, former U.S. Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) made five unsuccessful attempts to pass the Universal National Service Act, which would have required all people in the United States between ages 18 and 42 to either serve in the military or perform civilian service specifically related to national defense.
The Universal National Service Act reflects what most think of when faced with the phrase “mandatory national service”: the military draft. Also called conscription, the draft was created during the Civil War and is one type of mandatory national service. During the Civil War, the Union Army draft was controversial, resulting in the Draft Riot of 1863. As Encyclopaedia Britannica explains, “Although labouring people in general supported the Northern war effort, they had no voice in Republican policy and occasionally deserted from the army or refused reenlistment. Because of their low wages, often less than $500 a year, they were particularly antagonized by the federal provision allowing more affluent draftees to buy their way out of the Federal Army for $300. Minor riots occurred in several cities, and when the drawing of names began in New York on July 11, 1863, mobs (mostly of foreign-born, especially Irish, workers) surged onto the streets, assaulting residents, defying police, attacking draft headquarters, and burning buildings. Property damage eventually totaled $1,500,000.”
The draft was suspended with the end of the Civil War in 1865 and was not reinstated until shortly after the United States entered World War I in Apr. 1917. Because the American military only had about 100,000 men, conscription was needed for American participation in the war. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Selective Service Act on May 18, 1917, and about 2.8 million men were drafted. The draft initially required all men aged 21 to 30 to enroll, but it was expanded to all men aged 18 to 45.
Now, all male US citizens ages 18 to 25 must simply register with the Selective Service. However, the United States has had an all-volunteer army and has not drafted men into the military since 1973; in the 1960s and 70s, some 2.2 million men were drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. For more on the U.S. Selective Service Acts, visit Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Many countries require national military service of some or all citizens, including Brazil, Greece, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Requirements for each country vary; in Israel, for example, military service is mandatory for women, too.
While the United States has never had a national service mandate other than selective military service, the closest analogues are jury duty and volunteer organizations like the Peace Corps and Teach for America.
Globally, a few countries have non-military national service. Nigeria has a social mandatory service requirement for college graduates: the National Youth Service Corps. Established on May 22 1973, the corps was created after the Nigerian Civil War (also called the Nigerian-Biafran War) for rebuilding the country. In Rwanda, the last Saturday of every month is called Umuganda, a compulsory community cleanup event for everyone aged 18 to 65 enforced by police presence and a ban on driving.
U.S. public opinion on mandatory national service is split: 49% favored one year of required service for young Americans in a 2017 poll, while 45% were opposed. Among adults ages 18 to 29, who would be required to complete the service, 39% were for the proposal and 57% were against.
Should the United States Have Mandatory National Service?
Mandatory service provides a much-needed bridge to adulthood and maturity.
“Many of today’s young people are floundering. They are uncertain about what they want to do with their lives. They need a structured opportunity that will allow them to feel needed and capable,” explains Isabel V. Sawhill, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution.
Compulsory military or social service would allow all young people to pursue personal development before starting college, entering the workforce, or otherwise managing adulthood. They would learn discipline and a healthier way of living. They would gain real-world skills while learning to socialize with diverse people from diverse backgrounds, breeding greater social understanding and empathy.
98% of students who took a “gap year” between high school and college reported that the deferment helped their personal development, and 97% said it increased their maturity. Gap-year students also tend to have higher GPAs than their peers.
“We know that we as a society need these services. I would argue that young Americans would be given a sense of maturity and competence by providing them,” argues Paula S. Fass, History Professor Emerita at the University of California at Berkeley. She advocates for 18- to 21-year-olds to complete two years of service either in the armed forces or in needy communities.Read More
National security concerns require that more Americans serve their country.
The U.S. military is suffering a years-long staffing crisis. Only about 9% of Americans who are service-aged were interested in serving in 2022, the lowest amount in 15 years.
The Army missed its recruiting goal by 15,000 people in 2022 and is on target to miss 2023’s goal by 20,000.
“The risk is if the US military is too small to conduct the kinds of missions that it needs to conduct in future wars, that will go badly for the United States,” explains Nora Bensahel, senior fellow of the Merrill Center at Johns Hopkins.
The military being a “family business” exacerbates the recruitment shortages. Less than 1% of the U.S. population is in the military and almost 80% of new recruits had family already in the military. That means most Americans are completely disconnected from service. Michelle Kurilla, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, questions whether “it’s healthy for a democracy to have the vast majority of its citizens with little connection to its armed forces.”
Former Marine Elliot Ackerman asks, “But could we blame civilians for their apathy? No one asked them to care about the wars. How to make them care? [One] answer was the draft. It’s become mine too.”
Moreover, “A truly American military, inclusive of all social classes, might cause politicians and voters to be more selective in choosing which battles are worth fighting and at what expense,” argues former draftee Joseph Epstein. “It would also have the significant effect of getting the majority of the country behind those wars in which we do engage.”
Finally, for those who are “unfit” to serve in the military, countless opportunities exist to support national defense in non-physically demanding ways, from serving in disaster preparedness to aiding the Red Cross and USO. With global threats only growing stronger, the U.S. needs both a stronger, larger military force and a stronger connection between American citizens and national service.Read More
Mandatory service fosters national unity and a greater sense of purpose.
“National service, be it in the military, Peace Corps, or other public or private sector opportunities, breaks down the barriers of race, class, income, geography, and even language. Young adults are granted the opportunity to see their peers and fellow Americans as a member of their team,” according to Dan Glickman, former U.S. Representative (D-KS).
Around 30 countries have compulsory military service. Switzerland, which has four official languages and three major ethnic groups, bridges its divides with a mandatory national service program. The country is identified as one of the happiest places in the world by the United Nations.
Gene Yaw, a Republican Pennsylvania state senator, recommended a two-year universal public service requirement to promote civility and understanding of what it means to be an American. “We cannot generate enthusiasm for our way of life when less than 2% of our population has put forth any effort for our country.”Read More
Volunteerism is a better experience than mandatory service.
A whopping 80% of young Americans are “unfit” to serve in the military in 2023 because of drug use, weight issues, or other mental and physical ailments.
Conscripting unfit or unwilling people into the military would make the armed forces less efficient. Michael Lind, co-founder and fellow at the New America Foundation, states, “Most members of the military are satisfied with our professional soldiers and do not want to baby-sit teenagers who will leave the military after six months or two years of unsought, compulsory training.” We should not leave our national security to sulky young people who would rather do anything else.
Volunteers, however, are happier. 28% of millennials have volunteered for a total of 1.5 billion community service hours annually. And 26% of Gen Z, mostly just young kids at the time of the survey, said they already volunteered and 50% would like a job in volunteerism.
There are limitless volunteer opportunities throughout the country for willing young people to help others and mature into adulthood. For example, since AmeriCorps was founded in 1993, over 800,000 participants have completed more than one billion service hours. Applications outpace funding and capacity and there are 15 qualified would-be volunteers for every available AmeriCorps spot.Read More
Mandatory service results in draft dodging and an unfair burden on low-income and minority citizens.
“The Vietnam-era draft . . . drew disproportionately from those of low socioeconomic backgrounds, while the children of the wealthy and influential were able to finagle exceptions.…[D]raft boards across the country were required to call up men with IQ scores below the military’s minimum standards to offset the recruitment deficit caused by college student deferments,” says former Marine Elliot Ackerman.
The problem did not begin with the Vietnam War, but with the beginning of the American draft itself, explains the Deseret News: “Through the ages, the wealthy sought for ways out, including unjustified medical exemptions, while the poor tended to have few alternatives. The nation’s first draft was during the Civil War. Wealthy draftees at the time could pay someone to substitute for them, or they could pay $300 for an exemption.”
Any compulsory service programs “will be gamed by the wealthy, the well-connected, the folks with the social capital to figure out how things work — and national service will be set up in a way that serves their ends and reflects their values and preferences,” says Conor Friedersdorf, staff writer at The Atlantic.
Also, a period of mandatory service could be a hardship for families and communities that would lose the young people who are already performing service by contributing to household income, babysitting for neighbors, or caring for sick relatives.
Compulsory service would also delay people’s entry into the workforce, resulting in significant lost earnings that for some are desperately needed to keep multiple generations of a family afloat.
“Think of the aspiring athlete or entertainer who has only so many years in her prime, the talented coder who might have to pass up a big market opportunity or the young worker who cannot take a year off from helping to feed his family,” notes the Washington Post.Read More
Mandatory service infringes on Americans’ constitutional right to liberty.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States,” states the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
While the government has the authority to “raise and support Armies,” there is no constitutional basis for compelling citizens to perform public service. “Mandatory universal national service, at least if legally required and backed by civil or criminal penalties, would fit the definition of involuntary servitude,” says Doug Bandow, lawyer and Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
“Since people are now free to live and work where they want, one presumes participation in a National Service Program would be mandatory under the threat of a prison sentence,” adds Stuart Anderson, Executive Director of the National Foundation for American Policy. “A National Service Program that takes two years out of the lives of young people (or others) contravenes the most important part of America, what has drawn people to its shores for centuries – individual liberty.”Read More
1. Should the United States have mandatory national service? Why or why not?
2. If you had to complete mandatory national service, what sort of service would you like to enroll in? Explain your answer(s).
3. Should military service be mandatory? Explain your answer.
1. Analyze the arguments from Lilliana Mason and Eric Liu in favor of mandatory national service.
2. Explore the debate via readers’ letters to America: The Jesuit Review.
3. Consider Doug Bandow’s arguments against mandatory national service.
4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.