Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 33 (May 1993): 5-8.

National Service as Duty and Perk

Midge Decter

I know a man who spends four or five weeks of every year in the army. He is a young man, but not all that young-fortysomething-and has a wife and four small children. He lives in Jerusalem. His annual five- week tour of service in the Israel Defense Force is called in Hebrew by a term that would be translated into English as "replacement" but is, not insignificantly, etymologically related to the word "fulfillment." He will, like every man of sound mind and body in the country (except for the extremely religious), continue in this way to fulfill his obligation as a member of the reserve until he is fifty-four years old.

My Israeli friend-he happens also to be my son-in-law-is self-employed. This means that during the rest of the year he must somehow make up for the time lost or suffer a proportional decrease in his annual income. Were he a job-holder, it would be his employer who would one way or another be making the adjustment-or suffering the loss.

Perhaps these weeks are not completely lost time for him and his counterparts. For many Israeli men the time spent on reserve duty may possibly also constitute a time of fraternal reunion. Israeli children as a matter of policy remain with the same classmates from kindergarten through high school, and go into the army together and usually remain there together in the same unit (some experts ascribe the disproportionate military effectiveness of Israel's army to this practice). Once they have completed their first three-year tour of duty, however, their lives as students and/or family men and providers may, in the normal way of these things, pull them apart, at least in a day-to- day sense. Thus returning to the army each year may represent for them something socially more enriching than the mere fulfillment of a legal obligation.

Still, there is no way that, for this Jerusalemite and all other Israeli husbands and fathers-along with students at university who miss their exams, and beginners in new jobs or careers who are one way and another bound to be set back-the burden of yearly, as I like to think of it, "fulfillment" is not at the least a nuisance and more often than not downright onerous. (And this, mind you, is in peacetime. In times of war, serious danger, not only for them but for their families "back home," is added to the mix.)

But is the burden not lightened, emotionally and even in some cases economically, by the fact that every man in the country-again, except for the extremely orthodox, whose winning of a special exemption from military duty for their own children has done little to endear them to their countrymen-is required to take up his share of it? Indubitably the answer is yes. In each individual life, however, the load must inevitably be shouldered separately. And, of course, by the whole family.

I thought of my Jerusalemite on February 17, as I listened to President Clinton delivering his first major address to Congress. Among the many hopes, plans, and intentions set forth in the President's speech, one of the more specific was a proposal to establish something going by the name of "national service." In the space of time available to him, of course, Mr. Clinton could offer little more than a hasty outline of this proposal, but he did manage to make clear that what he was referring to was some sort of system whereby American high school (and, as it was to turn out, also college) graduates would exchange some years of service, either as policemen, environmental workers, or offerers of some form of assistance to poor children, in exchange for the government's subsequently paying their college tuition-a kind of GI Bill for non- GIs.

Subsequently, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times on February 28, the President discussed the program at somewhat greater length. First, he said, some young people will be able to borrow the money they need for college and pay it back after graduation as a small percentage of their income over time. Second, other young people will be given the opportunity to "serve our country for a year or two" and then receive financial support for education or training in return. By 1997, he expects that more than 100,000 citizens will be serving their country, receiving education and training benefits in return, and hundreds of thousands more will be doing vital community work, able now to afford the time for such satisfactions because the need to repay their college loans will no longer "block their way."

The services they will thus be freed to render? Teaching, tutoring, and mentoring in the schools; assisting to immunize two-year-olds in medical clinics; walking beats as policemen and keeping kids out of gangs; controlling pollution and recycling waste.

I thought of my Jerusalem friend because it came to me to wonder how such an idea of "national service" would strike him. He would no doubt be quite bewildered. Indeed, it would probably seem to him that taking a couple of years out of a life that has not yet reached full adulthood, spending them on a few of the nation's lighter household chores, so to speak, and then being rather handsomely compensated for it would more accurately come under the heading of perk than of citizenly offering.

Not that he would be inclined to think of his annual forfeit of time and the comforts of home as some special kind of sacrifice. He wouldn't. A nuisance, certainly, and now and then, depending on his schedule, worse than that: a bad break. But the real point is, he actually doesn't think much about it at all. It is what he does, what everyone he knows does, because his country needs him to and expects him to. The word for this, I believe, is duty.

And duty is a word that has not yet crossed the lips of the President. Nor is it likely to. Nor is it to be found in most of the discussions about the virtue and value of public service for America's young people, discussions that have been going on for some years now-for convenience call them "post-Vietnam"- among both liberals and conservatives.

The main impulse behind all this talk, of course, is a troubled feeling about the condition of the young, especially the young of the big-city ghettoes who have been making a great deal of trouble for themselves and others, but not about them alone. In any case, in whatever terms the argument is cast-that the trouble is the kids need some order and discipline, or need to raise their sights, or need to do something that matters, or are soft and spoiled-the notion of service is at bottom not something to be demanded from them but something to be done for them. It is in truth not about service at all. Quite the contrary; it is about psychic health, or vocational betterment, or, God help us, self- esteem.

Some years ago, for example, there was a flurry of debate about whether or not the country should return to a system of military conscription. A poll was taken (perhaps by Gallup, I no longer remember): an overwhelming percentage of the young men of draft age who were polled said they preferred not to be drafted. And not one party to the debate, nor one media commentator discussing the issue, seemed to notice that the word "draft" and the word "preference," when used in the same sentence, bespeak a profound contradiction. This is a contradiction endemic to a society that-for whatever reason, and at least some of the reasons are probably lost in the mists of history-does not know how to ask anything of its children except that they manage somehow to behave as if their lives are pleasing to them.

Of course, any comparison with Israel is unfair. In the inculcation of a sense of duty, there is no moral equivalent to living under the kind of constant danger of attack that the Israelis do. Nor can those Americans who actually serve, whether in the army proper or in any enterprise connected to their country's defense, have quite so immediate and close- quartered a connection as do Israel's soldiers to the wives and children and parents and friends they are called upon to defend.

Still, it is impossible to believe that any form of public contribution that is secured in exchange for reward will, deep down in their souls, fool America's young men into believing that they are truly shouldering their manly responsibilities. The works they perform might turn out to be helpful-though it would not be beyond the pale of reason to have one's doubts about that-but the effect on them, which is after all the object of the exercise, will only be to reconfirm the message society has for so long and so damagingly been giving them. Actually it is Falstaff's message:

What is honor? A word. . . .
Who hath it? He that died a'Wednesday.

Midge Decter is a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

The Newtape File III

Dear Nephew,

I trust it did not escape your notice that I have eliminated an affectionate diminutive in my greeting. I am just a bit annoyed that those undamned Smiths in Fremont, Nebraska-whom I have placed in your keeping-persist in tithing. You did succeed in staying Mr. Smith's hand briefly-he had pen in hand, checkbook before him, and you planted the vision of, in rapid succession, a new car, a motorboat-but he pushed those seductive objects out of his mind and went ahead with his obnoxiously virtuous duty.

May I suggest, Nephew, that perhaps your eagerness got the better of you. You should have remained with the vision of the car just a bit longer. By trotting out a second object Mr. Smith's heart "wants" you inadvertently triggered his concern about having too much when so many have too little. If you had fixed the car image a bit longer, allowed Mr. Smith to linger awhile, things might have turned our way. But the word "selfish" came into his mind; then "excessive"; then, "I don't really need these things," a sentence I hope to eradicate from the English language by the year 2020. At that point all was lost, you see, and I am annoyed that I must teach you what you ought by now to have learned: if he had construed his desire as reasonable, he might have found a way to shave off his givings to the church. Please remember that overeagerness in the pursuit of diabolism is no virtue, not when we have them more or less where we want them. The "cultural context," as certain of the smart set like to put it, is already temptation-friendly. We need not jump the gun.

Let me explain, for you seem to be in the grip of an unwarranted anxiety. You recall, I assume, our hero of the moment, Woody. I fear you may not understand the full extent of all he has taught. For his primary lesson is that guilt is everywhere, hence it is nowhere. He has wonderfully trivialized guilt. He is guilty when he gets up in the morning. So what difference does it make to add a little titillating borderline incest? By blurring any distinction between big and small things, he has helped to make our work easier.

The Enemy, as you were taught in The Infernal Day School, is an obsessive distinction-maker. He has worked all-too-successfully to instill this noxious habit in those debased creatures he seems truly, as Uncle Screwtape has already pointed out, to love. The more the popular and elite cultures embrace the view that guilt is bad, the better for us. And if guilt applies to everything by definition, its trivialization is the next best thing to eliminating it altogether.

I for one am so relieved that that pesky fellow, Sigmund Freud, has been misinterpreted in ways that more often than not support our cause. Freud was far too priggish and moral to be securely in the camp of Our Father. Undamnable fellow! He kept insisting on reflective ethical standards and the like. It was a close call for a while, but we appear to have tilted things our way by promoting the view that guilt itself is bad, rather like a nasty, automatic tic to be demeaned and turned into a joking matter or extirpated altogether. Because Freud is so pervasive a name, it was our lucky break to be able to associate his authority with our distinction-eroding work. You will recall-but please keep it to yourself, you are often far too blabby about our work-that Freud claimed the poor human race labored under too heavy a burden of guilt unattached to real infractions. Appropriate remorse for injuries actually inflicted is, for Freud-and I am sorry to report this-a "good" not a "bad" thing. To be sure, he made certain comments about The Enemy that have served us well. But he never left off talking about the integrity of being Jewish and similar babbling that seemed to undercut his salutary atheism. Thankfully, all this is behind us. What is left is the acidic residue- the all-pervasive moan and groan that guilt is bad or comic. A tremendous triumph for Our Father Below.

Keep your eye on the prize, Nephew. Try some distinction-erosion of your own. Those wretched Smiths, parochial rustics that they are, pay no attention to heavy metal and groups with demonic designer names: "Black Sabbath," "Judas Priest," and the like. Though even here things sometimes get tricky. For often such groups seem to be mocking rather than worshipping Our Father Below. Undamned human humor! Perhaps you could entice the teenage son into listening to the gloriously violent and marvelously misogynistic forms of "Rap Music."

I'm thinking of lyrics my cloven-hoofed compatriot, Demonica, as clever a deviltress as ever confounded human beings, helped to write. In your backwater you perhaps missed "Death Certificate," a song promoting salutary racism. Koreans are described as "Oriental one-penny countin' mother-f . . . s" and threatened with being burned "to a crisp." A second estimable lyric excoriates the "white Jew telling you what to do," and the remedy is breathtaking in its fiendish directness: a "bullet in his temple." One of my own favorites-Demonica played this for me the other evening when I was in a bit of a slump, having watched that horrible Bruce Springsteen spread the joys of parenthood and adult responsibility during a televised concert-is "Momma's Gonna Die Tonight," about murdering and dismembering his Mother shouted at fever pitch by an energetic recruit for Our Father below, one Ice-T. (Demonica instructed me that his musical genre is "speed metal," not "rap," but I told her to stop making distinctions.)

I am performing a nasty little thought experiment even as I write, imagining the capaciously cruel possibilities of this move. Suppose young Bud Smith were to begin listening day and night, hours on end, to lyrics of hatred of women and Jews and others being implanted in his budding (I am clever today!) mind. Suppose Mother Smith were then to announce that she must disallow this "immoral" stuff in her home. One of two strategies, both bearing the imprimatur of Our Father Below, should kick in immediately: forewarned is forearmed, Nephew, and I will brook no flabby excuses from your corner should you fail.

I suggest this first Machiavellian maneuver-old Nicky, what a charming fellow-as it is less subtle. Young Bud must scream "Censorship!" in the face of his beleaguered Mother's protests. She is trying to censor him. He may accuse her of racism, too, but that would be rather ham-fisted as he knows her to be a leader in local interracial activities and she even taught him Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech at one point. (I hope you found this as sickening as I did, by the way.) But the censorship charge might stick. When she protests that she is censoring nothing, rather, she is being a responsible parent, the riposte out of young Bud's mouth should be something along the lines of: "You are forcing me to self-censor. You are denying me my constitutional rights to free expression." Here, you see, we are on the ever-shifting sands of distinction erosion once again. For the charge of censorship is now so pervasive it is virtually meaningless. We have more work to do but we are nearly there in our effort to denude censorship of any lingering weightiness. I chortle each time I think of a mother beseeching a child to avoid hate-mongering (in other words, our sort of love lyrics) and one of the late and sorely missed authoritarian regimes of Central/Eastern Europe banning the works of a dissident, for this reminds me that we have been successful beyond our wildest projections in covering both such moments under one word: "censorship." I implore you, Nephew, take advantage of the "cultural context."

A second strategy, more subtle and probably not for a neophyte nemesis such as yourself, is to push Mother Smith into a fearful anxiety about all of American popular culture. Her overreaction will serve our purposes well. If she becomes hysterical and insists that Bud must listen only to albums of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Percy Faith chorales or that Lawrence Welk fellow, she will drive him closer to our clammy grasp. I would be particularly pleased if she chucked all the Springsteen albums. That fellow has been a thorn in my side for years, singing about people's responsibilities to their own home towns and similar drivel. His current stuff is really a blow to our Popular Culture Division-moaning about how human beings need kindness toward one another, actually using the word "soul" in a song, condemning the wasteland of Cable-TV, even a rock-lullaby to his newborn son: terrible. I fear Mother Smith will not take the bait, however, so please stay with the censorship ploy. It is a proven winner.

Your affectionate uncle,

Jean Bethke Elshtain, discoverer of the Newtape File, teaches political philosophy at Vanderbilt University.