I was a freshman in college the first time I truly observed Veterans Day. Like the rest of the country, I’d been under the patriotic spell that characterized the two months following the attacks of September 11th. That Veterans Day, with a few friends in tow, I drove across the Key Bridge from Washington, D.C., into Virginia where a number of veterans had gathered at the Iwo Jima Memorial.
My friends and I walked around the grounds, listening to the old soldiers exchange stories about the war, share memories of their proud homecomings, and give tributes for friends that hadn’t made it back with them. The experience was exceptionally humbling. On the drive back to campus, my friends and I overcame the quiet to confess our lament at having not engaged in some form of national service; the day had highlighted a naturally felt shortcoming in our “love for country” stock. We never spoke about it again. Veterans Day is one of those holidays that afford Americans a rare look inward, especially at the issue of national service. It is also a holiday that is entirely overlooked. Among the four of us in the car that day, I had done the closest thing to national service, albeit abroad. I had spent the previous year before college in Israel where I volunteered for four months in a small town with an emerging economy and took a semester of college classes. That year I experienced life in Israel, a country where most of the people my age were starting their compulsory national service. While service, for many of them, meant the military (the majority of which is non-combat service) or some volunteerism, I could not help but be struck by how enmeshed this rite of passage was in Israeli society. Eight years later, I cannot help but continue to be struck by how badly this commitment to country is needed in the United States today. The Twitter phenomenon has imbued an entire American generation with a self-obsession that rivals the most farcical apologues of classical mythology. More potent than statistics is the sentiment that so little was asked of my generation that the definition of service in America (as once famously prescribed) actually became shopping. Despite this, American volunteerism is currently at one of its highest levels in decades. But across the country, there are still at-risk students who need mentors and after school tutors, our swelling elderly population needs care, and our first responders need back up. The number of illiterate Americans is fast approaching the number of the uninsured. The obesity rate for children in this country has tripled since 1980. America is suffering from an energy crisis of another sort: a dearth of spirit. It’s time to ask for more of the next generation. In Israel, national service is compulsory after high school. Despite a growing percentage of Israeli teens that now shirk that duty, for decades, national service has been a standard part of the adolescent experience there. One upshot is that when Israelis go to college, they are generally two or three years older than American students. In exchange for service, the government pays for college, allowing Israeli students to approach their higher education without the looming specter of spectacular debt. What is certainly more important (and less quantifiable) is the effect that national service has on its participants. Those few years of service offer invaluable perspective for young Israelis leaving home. They witness firsthand the problems in their country. Many become invested in finding solutions. In my experience, if you ask an Israeli for an opinion about an issue in his or her country, you will likely be on the receiving end of a vigorous, well-informed, and impassioned response (often given in his or her second or third language). Or as one Israeli put it: “There is a real feeling here that you serve and therefore have a stake in what goes on.” It would not be an irrational leap of logic to assume that service has something to do with the fact that voter turnout in Israel (a non-compulsory exercise) is generally 15-20% percent higher than in the United States. The Israeli model is not perfect and certainly not perfect for us. But it is an idea that pays dividends in ways we desperately need. And while we continue to be a country that bristles at mandates, obligatory national service is an idea we should approach more thoughtfully, starting today, as we pay tribute to those who have served.