When I was growing up they called it "Decoration Day.”
It was the day when the graves of family and those who died in service of their country were decorated with flowers and plants. There were civic parades, complete with bands playing, soldiers marching, everybody waving the American flag. It was a big deal, usually near the end of the school year and marking the start of the summer.
Although the day’s origins are disputed, as is exactly when and why the day got renamed Memorial Day, it now celebrates the memories of those who have passed away and the patriotism of all those who have served their country. Many families (including mine) still mark the day by planting flowers on the graves of parents and family members, in addition to the military dead.
But regardless of how it is celebrated, Memorial Day also marks a strong strain of thought that every American citizen has an obligation to serve our country with some form of public service, whether in the military or with any of our countless civic volunteer groups. Stepping outside of our normal self-engaged routines to serve the broader interest resonates powerfully in our civic culture.
In my own experience, that idea came to fruition when, as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I joined a small group called, somewhat pretentiously, "Americans Committed to World Responsibility.” There were maybe a dozen of us, led by a couple of sociology graduate students. We met irregularly, stayed up too late, drank too much coffee and far too much beer.
And because this was 1960, we decided to write a manifesto that called on young Americans to volunteer to serve in underdeveloped countries abroad. The idea proved popular on many college campuses, eventually making its way to John F. Kennedy's campaign for the Presidency. On October 14, 1960, Kennedy spoke in Ann Arbor echoing the call for Americans to serve abroad, and that was the actual beginning of what became the Peace Corps.
So my generation of U-M students had a big role in helping create one of the signature accomplishments of American culture in the latter part of the 20th Century. That experience led to other government-sponsored volunteer groups ‒ AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Vista and Teach for America ‒ each providing a way for public-spirited Americans to fulfill their obligations as citizens.
So you won’t be surprised that I was troubled when I learned that President Trump's budget proposal would cut the Peace Corps by 15 percent and eliminate AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Vista and Teach For America. It would also zero out a student loan forgiveness program for around half a million people who chose to work in public service jobs. Puzzlingly, candidate Donald Trump himself acknowledged that national service is popular among young people, saying there was "something beautiful about it."
This Administration's budget proposal has shaken all those who believe each citizen has an obligation of citizenship to some sort of public service at some point in a life. Anybody who drives up north this summer will see the results of an early effort in this direction, the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Look on either side of the car when driving up I-75, and those pine trees you see in neat rows in state and national forests were mostly planted by the CCC in the 1930's.
The corps, started in 1933 as a program of President Roosevelt's New Deal, ultimately attracted three million unmarried, unemployed young men to carry out public service in the conservation and development of natural resources on government land in rural areas. The program was discontinued in 1942, as the country organized itself to fight World War II and turned to a military draft ‒ itself a form of (obligatory) public service.
America is far from alone in this tradition. Many nations require national service from all citizens. Israel, for example, obliges both young men and women to serve for two years in the Israel Defense Forces.
Advocates for obligatory national service say the practice provides a shared civic experience for all citizens, as well as encouraging community bonding, overcoming cultural and political differences, and marking an important step in growing up.
Critics ‒ and there are many ‒ argue that coerced national service is an intrinsic violation of individual liberty, saps support for voluntary engagement and is ruinously expensive. Sadly, it is no secret that this Memorial Day saw our country facing a period of national disunity and ferment.
My feeling is that any institution that works to pull us together as a society is especially important today, a thought well worth considering as we return from the holiday to a country whose citizens desperately need a sense of togetherness and mutual obligation.