Should you be a veteran?


By Jim Tortolano/E Pluribus Unum

Are you a veteran? Should you be?

Monday is Veteran’s Day, an observance that began after World War I as Armistice Day.  It is an event featuring remembrance of Americans who served in the armed forces in our many wars, with speeches, flags and ceremonies.

But the number and percentage of our people who are veterans is declining with each year. According to a 2013 Gallup Poll, among all Americans 18 and over, 12.7 percent have served in uniform. But that reflects the high percentages called to duty during the days of conscription, primarily from 1940 to 1972.

If you look at those in the “prime” years of military service of 18-24, the percentage plunges to about 7 percent. The means that about one out of 14 in that age group has had a role in defending America.

Those who enlist in the services are a varied lot, but many of them are people from lower socioeconomic circumstances. The training and financial benefits are an attraction for a substantial portion.

So America’s wars are not being fought by as broad a spectrum of society as before. The “citizen-soldier” concept of Americans called to the colors during a time of need, then returning to their civilian lives is a mere shadow of itself. The draft became anathema during the Vietnam War, we now we have a heavily subsidized volunteer military.

To me, service in uniform is an issue related to the concept of “the common good.”  I believe that in a democratic society, we all should bear some of the burden for the defense of our nation, although that doesn’t necessarily mean carrying a rifle.

The volunteer armed forces have performed well over the past two generations, but the effect of this change is that fewer and fewer Americans have any knowledge of the human cost of going to war. We have sometimes stretched our soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors to the limit and beyond, fighting multiple conflicts.

In that situation, most Americans are walled off from the consequences of our foreign policy decisions, not always to the good of the nation.

This situation underscores the concept that we owe nothing to each other except our own self-aggrandizement. We’ll just pay somebody else to do the stuff we’d just as soon avoid.

Is this the best we can do? Is there no sense of “we’re all in this together?”  No feeling that we need to “give back” back to society?

In that spirit, a modest proposal.  Conscription as we have known it in the past will never return, barring a catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions. But a program of national service with incentives that are hard to turn down could be a way to bring Americans back to the concept and practice of being a citizen, with all the responsibilities that entails.

Suppose we were to say that all Americans 18-24 were eligible for a “national service” term of one to two years. You could choose between and among the military branches (including state defense forces), Peace Corps, Vista, the Public Health Service and a new Environmental Corps and a Rescue and Relief Agency.

Anyone serving satisfactorily in those capacities would get generous G.I. Bill-style benefits. You would need status as a “service veteran” to receive many other goodies from Uncle Sam, including FHA loans, federally-guaranteed college loans, etc. You would be ineligible for most jobs with the federal government.

There is a lot of work to be done in this country. Bridges and roads are decaying;  sensitive ecosytems are on the edge; disasters often overwhelm local authorities; the National Guard is often torn between its war-fighting and domestic responsibilities.

Aside from the benefit to the nation, such a service requirement would help young people develop discipline, teamwork and a sense of patriotism based not on flag-waving and horn-honking, but on rendering genuine contributions to the lives of people and the future of their country.

A modest proposal to make the term “veteran” a more common term in our individualistic society.


Jim Tortolano is managing editor of E Pluribus Unum.

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  1. Wayne Sherwood says:

    Robert Heinlein, the famous Science Fiction writer, quite often wrote in his stories the idea the only those the served in some sort of Government Service would be the only ones able to vote. While I admired that idea, I thought it went to far. However, I think your plan would make a lot of difference in this country.

    I know a lot of people hated the New Deal under FDR, but I have always felt that one of the best things to have come out of it, at the time, was the Civilian Conservation Corps, (CCC). With are crumbling roads, bridges and the potential of losing agricultural zone, a new CCC would be a great benefit.

    I sometimes regret that I never joined the Air Force, the service I liked the best, but I see the benefits is encouraging more young people to help this country. In a way, as I see it, as a long time public school custodian, I at least gave a little back. Not as much as a solider, but a little.

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