On Veterans Day, Americans salute the sacrifices of those who fought to protect the country and its ideals — but those who make such sacrifices are becoming more rare. The share of the population that has served in the military has fallen by more than half since 1980. Active duty numbers are down from more than 3 million in 1966, when there was a draft for the Vietnam War, to 1.3 million today. President Trump, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton never served.
It leads some to question if the gulf between those who serve and those who pay tribute to them should be so vast. Should national public service — military or civilian — be expected of all Americans?
Service advocates, military veterans and political commentators have argued that a large-scale national service program — which would either encourage or mandate that young Americans spend time in military or civilian service — could help unite the country. The idea has been proposed before, as a solution to decline in civic participation and especially after 9/11. This fall, amid the nation's widening political rift, search interest for mandatory national service was at a five-year high.
Most recently, the idea of compulsory service entered the news upon White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' suggestion that Trump's chief of staff John Kelly shouldn't be debated due to his former rank as general. National service could "bring the role of the military into proper perspective," Lloyd Green, former staff secretary to the George H.W. Bush campaign’s Middle East Policy Group, wrote for Fox News after the dust-up.
Proponents say even a voluntary program sizable enough to offer a spot to everyone who desired one would provide important societal benefits and could be the social glue the country needs, a rite of passage to bring together people from diverse backgrounds in pursuit of the common good.
"It would create a virtuous cycle," said Robert Litan, an economist at the Council on Foreign Relations, a non-profit think tank. Litan said people from different socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds working together to improve society "would help bring us together gradually over time."
A 2016 analysis by the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program found America’s young population is growing increasingly diverse but also more segregated. Litan said he would settle for a larger scale voluntary national program but believes the "social advantages" of a mandatory one would be "far greater."
"Just think about if we had this today" to dispatch people to Florida and Puerto Rico, Litan said. "Can you imagine an army of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of kids spread out? They could help these places recover."
Requiring military service, though, could come with great costs, given that U.S. troops remain deployed all over the globe, including in Afghanistan and Niger, where four were killed just last month. And civilian service could mean diminished earnings for young people just starting out.
Detractors also argue compelling American youth into service positions restricts individual liberties, pointing to the 13th Amendment, which states:
"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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
Compulsory military service has been done before in the USA and is present policy elsewhere in the world.
The U.S. has instituted the draft at various times in its history, but has had an all-volunteer military for decades. The Selective Service System remains in place, however, through which men ages 18 to 25 register. Some have said a return to conscription would spread what is now an uneven burden.
Many developed and developing countries have some form of national service. In Israel, eligible men and women are drafted into the Israel Defense Forces at age 18. Sweden just reintroduced compulsory military service, and will include women in its conscription for the first time.
If there were a national service program in place in the U.S., Litan said integrating it into the country's homeland security strategy would be important.
There are already government programs that give people the option to serve outside the military, such as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and FEMA Corps.
Benefits include student loan forgiveness — but you must work for 10 years at an eligible nonprofit or government agency while making steady student loan payments (serving as a full-time AmeriCorps or Peace Corps volunteer counts as qualifying employment). While AmeriCorps places about 80,000 people a year in positions, it receives far more applicants than it accepts.
"I think it's very much an American tradition to want to help," said Shirley Sagawa, president and CEO of the non-profit Service Year Alliance, who also helped lead the development of AmeriCorps. "Unfortunately, there's not enough positions right now."
Sagawa said her organization's goal is to increase access to service opportunities, which she hopes will foster a widespread culture of service.
"We would like every young person to say, 'wow, where am I going to serve?' And be planning to serve," she said. Ideally in the future, "you wouldn't dream of electing a president who hasn't served somewhere."
Advocates, including Litan, say national service participants should be paid a modest income, and could receive benefits not unlike the GI bill — a law that provides educational and training benefits for military veterans. Though he and Sagawa acknowledge that such a program would require a significant federal contribution. Both argue the benefits outweigh the costs.
A 2012 study commissioned by the National Park Service found if the government were to reduce the backlog of maintenance on public lands using conservation corps (made up of 18- to 25-year-olds considering land management as a career) rather than contractors, it would save more than 80% per project.
But economic debates are not the only barriers.
"I'm concerned about the continued erosion of the rights and liberties of 18- to 21-year-olds in this country," said Mack Mariani, political science chair at Xavier University. "We find it much easier to restrict the rights and liberties and impose new responsibilities on the young rather than deal with problems ourselves."
Even Sagawa doesn't advocate for a mandatory program, noting that some young people face obstacles — working to support a single mother, for instance — that would make service nearly impossible.
"People have family responsibilities. ... There are just issues that people have in their lives that people have to be respectful of," she said.
Some also fear such a program might make people think that civilian service should fall only on youth or is a once-in-your-life obligation.
"I think service shouldn't be something that you do and you check the box and you're done with it," Mariani said. "Service is part of an attitude. It's part of a broader culture that people do throughout their lives."
In 2013, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., sponsored the Universal National Service Act, which would require people living in the U.S. "between the ages of 18 and 25 to perform a 2-year period of national service, unless exempted, either through military service or through civilian service." It did not make it to a floor vote and Rangel is now retired.
Litan said a program of this kind should, in theory, appeal to both parties — the idealism speaking to Democrats, and the service component drawing in conservatives. But he's skeptical it would get much traction in the current political climate.
"President Trump's the wrong messenger for this, because anything attached to his name will automatically be opposed by a lot of the people who would otherwise volunteer for it," Litan said. "A lot of the idealistic kids who want to contribute to their country are not going to respond to a call by President Trump."
Trump is unlikely to make such a call, anyway — his 2018 budget proposed to eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the agency that runs AmeriCorps.
There is healthy debate around the idea of a national service program. What is agreed upon is that service itself is deeply American, and if we did more of it, shoulder to shoulder with people we might never interact with otherwise, we wouldn't just feed hungry mouths and teach eager children — we may even heal a nation.
As Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, who has logged both military and public service, said after receiving the Liberty Medal last month:
"What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed."