Almost from the moment our plane landed in Tel Aviv, Israel, I was aware of the soldiers in olive drab uniforms. They seemed ubiquitous, reminiscent of the kudzu I knew to grow and root all over the landscape of my native North Carolina. Set against the tan, desert landscape, the greenery was human—and always with an automatic rifle slung over a shoulder.
But it was during a midnight walk in a Jerusalem park late into my first, jet-lagged night that I was first awed by them. There, a group of the soldiers came up behind us as we looked down into the Old City below. Chatting and laughing among themselves, at first they didn’t see the group of American tourists. But as they drew closer to us, one shushed the other to stop their noisy merriment. I assumed it was a sign of respect to us.
And that’s when I noticed how very young the soldiers were. Kids, actually, little more than postpubescent, it seemed to me, carrying such fearsome-looking weapons.
“You know,” I remarked to someone in my party, “if a group of teenagers with those guns came up on me like that in a downtown park in Washington, D.C., I’d have run away.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” said my traveling companion. “If they’d come up on you like that, it would have been too late to run,” he quipped.
For all the seemingly intractable domestic politics and impossible international conflicts that dominated the conversations I had while in Israel, I returned home with one absolute: We need a form of youth-oriented, national service in this country. Of course, there’s a world of difference between the two countries that prevents this issue and many others from being directly fungible. But it’s something we should take seriously and find a way to adapt to life in this country as well.
Unlike young people in the United States, Israeli youths come of age with an overarching sense of insecurity that comes in the wake of repeated wars and acts of terrorism. The country is small and surrounded by political enemies. Young people grow up faster and are more politically aware and—dare I say—politically involved than their counterparts in the United States because the obligations to their nation are real and practical.
From the beginning of the country in 1948, the government set up its military to conscript every 18-year-old and obligate the males to serve three years and females to serve two years in the Israeli Defense Forces. For the most part, there’s no getting around it. Rich or poor, all Israeli citizens muster into the IDF. Typically, college enrollment is delayed until the service commitment is fully paid. (A notable exception, however, does allow very religious Orthodox Jews and some Arab Israelis to opt out.)
Here in the United States, where the draft ended in 1973 when President Richard Nixon allowed it to expire, an 18-year-old has no statutory obligation to serve his or her nation. Absent a pressing need to serve their country or fellow citizens, young Americans often feel adrift in the relative comforts of a consumerist culture driven more by video games, Facebook, and cell phone texting. Increasingly, the high costs associated with college tuition makes the dilatory retreat onto a campus difficult to impossible. And the prolonged downturn of the nation’s economy renders life-supporting work all but impossible for young people to find.
But that’s not to say young Americans aren’t patriotic or unwilling to be of service. Quite the contrary, as a host of federal service programs have offered young people an opportunity to give back to their community and nation.
All that’s necessary is for someone to ask, as President John F. Kennedy did in 1961 with the establishment of the Peace Corps. Similarly, President Lyndon Johnson created Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA, to help fight the war on poverty. VISTA is now a part of AmeriCorps, a program that sprang out of President Bill Clinton’s enactment of the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. Since 9/11, still more youth-oriented volunteer programs came into being such as President George W. Bush’s U.S.A. Freedom Corps.
These programs suggest that if the demand is made, young people will rise up to the cause. But someone has to ask.
My colleagues Melissa Boteach, Joy Moses, and Shirley Sagawa wrote that federal investments in national service programs are an important way for Congress and the Obama administration to tackle high unemployment and growing poverty across the United States.
More recently, Sagawa, a national expert on national service and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress, lamented the fact that this year’s budget compromise failed to accommodate scheduled growth in vital national service programs.
“Instead, the FY 2011 budget cut thousands of national service positions, leaving many outstanding organizations with fewer resources than they need and other deserving organizations with no AmeriCorps grants program, VISTA, and National Civilian Community Corps, all of which are funded under the Serve America Act,” she wrote.
When right-wingers in Congress succeed in underfunding vital programs that encourage young people to give back to their nation, it sends a chilling message. Worse, it tells young people that their service to the nation isn’t really needed or wanted. Perhaps that’s why I would be not too pleased to run into an 18-year-old with an automatic gun at midnight in this country, but thought nothing at all of it while traveling in a foreign land.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.