A call to public service, in a land filled with discord

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Robyn A Tonkin
Tue, 05/30/2017 - 11:12am

It was interesting to read about the group that Phil Power belonged to in 1960, and how it eventually inspired the Peace Corps. I remember reading the plaque that is on the wall at the Union about President Kennedy's announcement every so often, and it is nice to know the entire story. I absolutely believe that all Americans should engage in service to our country--it would be beneficial to both the individual and the nation. I have a couple of comments about the history of service to the nation. First, while enrollment in the Civilian Conservation Corps was voluntary, not compulsory, counties had enrollee quotas that they had to fill. So county agents were actively seeking enrollees. My late father in law was enrolled in the CCC's at age 12--if a county agent had not been personally motivated to fill a quota, I doubt that this would have happened. My husband's grandfather lied about his son's age in order to enroll him in the CCC's because of family poverty--a move such as this enrollment was called "finding a place" for someone, and when a place was found, a family's "mouths to feed" declined by one, a real help to people relying somewhat on "relief". Service to the nation found a place for excess men (in our case, youngters) that the nation in the depths of the Depression could not employ. So, the CCC had motivations above and beyond a simple desire to be in service to the country by people freely choosing to do so.
My husband was in the active and reserve American military forces for 42+ years, my daughter is Active Duty Navy, and my son-in-law is a civilian Navy employee and an Army reservist, and an Iraq War combat vet. There is no civilian volunteerism service to America that compares in any way to the dedication to the United States, which includes being willing to die for their country, should it come to that, that my family has shown. So when Phil Power writes "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", I hasten to add that "public service" in the military, and "public service" in civic volunteer groups is NOT apples and apples. One is a life's work and calling, potentially death dealing, and one is a part time civic responsibility.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 05/30/2017 - 11:16am

"Compulsory volunteerism" is an oxymoron.

I'm also at a loss as to how this can possibly contribute to the "national unity" which Mr. Power is promoting?

If anything, it would make things even worse by forcing someone into doing something in which they have no interest in participating in.

For example, what would the take-away be if Mr. Power were forced to leave TCFM and write press releases full-time for the Trump Administration for the next two years?

How about if your colleague, say Mrs. Dawsey, were forced to do the same for Gov. Snyder?

And to properly fulfill your "volunteer" commitment, you will be expected to do nothing but positive work for that entire time.

I don't need my Magic 8-Ball to tell me the answer to those questions.

Tue, 05/30/2017 - 3:03pm

Would recognizing that the state cannot feasibly pay for every possible good idea or perceived need, letting people form their own mechanisms for solving their perceived mutual problems and then doing it on your own without whining for government handouts or intervention, count as public service? And if compulsory is it service?

Bob Bruttell
Tue, 05/30/2017 - 5:18pm

Mr. Powers makes some good points that are worth discussing as three others have done in comments before this one. How do we get everyone to consider service to their community and their country as a critical contribution to our mutual well-being? And while we cannot afford every good thing, we can afford some good things. We will and should debate which those are. I have not doubt that those who have contributed to the well-being of their community are more willing to consider contributing to the well-being of the community as a public good and critical to our health as a people of good will. Like all questions of mutuality there will be a debate. Let's debate how we can help one another with the idea in mind that we should help one another as much as we can; at least as much as we can afford.

Wed, 05/31/2017 - 3:49pm

Memorial/Decoration Day; why can’t those who made the ultimate sacrifice and their families be allowed to have one day, one moment to have people they sacrificed for pause to honor that sacrifice?
Why does everything have to be used for the agenda of others?