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    Why Serve?

    The time is right for countries to reconsider mandatory national civic service.

    By Adrian Pabst

    December 15, 2023
    • Matt Granitto

      I completely agree with you! A worship leading friend of mine is from Germany also and his stint in national service (helping those with addiction issues) and led him to a vibrant faith and a lifetime of service to the body of Christ. He was glad that he had a non-military option to pursue. I also agree that it should be compulsory and wonder if there should be military and non-military service options, with further options that are non-military as Adrian describes. Want to make America great again? I see all sorts of benefits with this service.

    Growing up as a German citizen in the 1980s, it wasn’t a question of whether to serve my nation, but how. From the mid-1950s until 2011, all male citizens had a legal obligation to serve about a year in the military or – should they refuse on grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion – perform alternative civilian service called Zivildienst. Civilian service could mean working in hospitals, care homes, kindergartens, rehabilitation centers, or another civilian institution that provides a public service. Almost all of these institutions had their origins in Christian ideas and practices of compassion and service for the vulnerable, the poor, and the downtrodden, like the orphanage or the hospice.

    In the early years, under the shadow of the Cold War and Germany’s partition, the vast majority of men did their service in the territorial army, the navy, or the air force. Just a few thousand became Zivis. But the number of Zivis slowly rose. The small, post-1945 pacifist movement grew in strength during the Vietnam War in the 1970s and the nuclear disarmament campaign in the mid-1980s. By the early 1990s, there were more than one hundred thousand Zivis – those choosing civilian service exceeded the number of military conscripts. From the 1990s until the end of mandatory service, the majority of men called up chose to serve as Zivis, rather than carry a weapon.

    In my own family, two of my four male cousins served in the military, one received an exemption due to his health and one chose civilian service. For me, there was no choice. I had moved abroad by eighteen and was studying at a foreign university. I was not required to serve. Hendrik and Christian opted for the army. For them, their nine months of service included learning some useful technical skills, but also spending long evenings drinking, smoking, and playing cards with their fellow conscripts. Neither made lasting friends and both rarely think back to that time, though they do not regret choosing military service and take satisfaction from having done their duty.

    college students working with The Tampa Bay Estuary Program

    Photograph by Joe Whalen

    For Jens, a year of civilian service left more lasting marks. He worked long shifts in a public hospital, both day and night. To an outside observer, the work looked like drudgery, performing the same routinized tasks – like sterilizing surgical instruments – for weeks on end. But for Jens, the work taught him the values of discipline and precision, of mutual dependence and trust. Our lives are sustained by that mutual care, both at the hospital and in “ordinary” life. Conscripts often served far from home, but Zivis could and mostly did live at home. They remained close to family and friends while also meeting fellow Zivis and helping some of the most vulnerable people in our societies. After Jens worked in a care home and washed and fed the residents, he carried his sense of what society requires to be sustained long past his year of service by getting involved in charitable work and training as a teacher.

    While I lived abroad, I didn’t feel like I was lucky in avoiding the work my cousin took on. I regretted not having had the opportunity to serve – though it took me many years to comprehend why. As a citizen of Germany (or, for that matter, many other liberal democracies), I am granted certain individual rights and entitlements such as a passport to travel or the ability to vote for political representatives. But meaningful citizenship also means owing my nation and contributing to society beyond my individual self-interest.

    Looking over my career, I feel the lack of an obligatory shared time of service. Much of my research and writing focuses on the limitations and corrosive effects of individualism, yet the life I have lived is often hard to distinguish from an individualized existence, largely devoid of Samaritan service to strangers. The help I have provided, I have done voluntarily and most of all to family or friends.

    Germany’s recent history suggests purely voluntary service is not enough. When Germany replaced conscription and Zivildienst with a voluntary service option, numbers plummeted. Conscription produced over one hundred thousand Zivis per year; the new volunteer service drew around thirty-eight thousand per year, but numbers have fallen continuously since 2017 – from a peak of nearly forty-two thousand to just over thirty-six thousand last year. This decline is likely set to continue as more people grow up with fewer examples. It is not just individuals who miss out on the experience of serving community and country. Civilian institutions have been starved of people helping to provide key public services, and the young have lost out on acquiring distinctive vocational and social skills that foster wellbeing. According to Germany’s federal office for civilian service, in 2010 (the year before the abolition), over 70 percent of all Zivis worked for key charities such as the Worker’s Welfare organization, Caritas, and the Red Cross, and their contribution to providing social care has largely been lost.

    In other countries with voluntary service programs, the rates are similarly low. For the United Kingdom’s existing National Citizens Service (a program for young people aged sixteen to seventeen to engage in activities encouraging personal, social, and civic development for up to four weeks), only 12 percent of the target age group had signed up in 2016, well below the 45 percent recruitment target. Since then, the numbers have stagnated around ninety-five thousand per year, which represents about 13 percent of the target population. France’s Service National Universel (SNU) has seen only thirty-two thousand young people perform four weeks of national service in either civil institutions or military facilities in 2022, about 1.6 percent of the target population of fifteen to seventeen-year-olds. The US AmeriCorps and Peace Corps attract about seventy-five thousand young Americans per year for voluntary service at home or abroad. America’s program doesn’t aim to be universal – the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are framed as competitive, elite opportunities. For all the noble intentions, volunteering remains the exception and, in the absence of sufficient support, is largely an opportunity for the young who come from affluent backgrounds. It’s part of a phenomenon known as “opportunity hoarding,” rather than creating cross-class connectedness.

    No one’s education is complete without exposure to the need of others, and the growing hope that each of us can help.

    A voluntary civic service program presumes the society it intends to create – one with a deeply felt sense of civic duty and strong social bonds. But in 2023, the number of people who are volunteers or members of local groups, or who attend church or engage in community activities, is lower than at any point since 1945. It is hard to sustain social trust and communal cooperation without lived practice. In our socially isolated and economically segregated societies, the places and spaces where we meet the poor are increasingly sparse. With political parties becoming small elite clubs and trade unions increasingly marginalized, the churches and other faith communities are perhaps the last institution where people come together irrespective of color, class, creed, gender, age, or wealth. Without encounter, it is easy to imagine that the poor are external to us, they are “the other” to whom something should be done by the impersonal forces of state or market.

    Anyone who is unfortunate, even partly through their own fault, remains a part of society as our neighbor. Even those of us who are (for the moment) wealthy, are still akin to the poor. Each of us is fundamentally dependent on the abundance of the natural world and the gifts of other human beings and communities like the church.

    As some churches and other faith traditions suffer an exodus of believers, Western societies face a growing shift away from shared norms of social trust, community cohesion, and democratic cooperation towards distrust, division, and conflict. One step toward renewing the lived practice of shared bonds of belonging is to create a national civic service – a year of mandatory service for all people aged eighteen to thirty and for all newly naturalized citizens up to the age of sixty-five. It would be a difficult, but worthwhile, fight to establish this program. In the United Kingdom, Onward found in an August 2023 poll that nearly 60 percent of Britons support national civic service and only 20 percent oppose it. But if the service program is compulsory, a majority oppose it, with opposition being particularly strong among those most likely to be called up. Almost two-thirds of young people oppose conscription into civic service.

     What would it take to win majority support for universal, compulsory service? There are both principled and pragmatic arguments in favor of such an initiative. For much of the past fifty years, our increasingly liberal individualistic culture has privileged rights over obligations to the point that personal entitlement overrides a sense of mutual responsibility. To correct this imbalance, it’s important to reaffirm that duties ultimately beget rights because we are born into relationships of mutual dependence and reciprocal assistance: parents have rights but more fundamentally they have obligations toward their children and by analogy, so too citizens have responsibilities towards their neighbors, colleagues, fellow citizens, “strangers in their midst,” and humankind.

    We are most fully human when we earn the esteem of our fellow citizens for the contributions we make to society’s common good through our work and our care for others. Rampant individualism and the vices of greed and lust it feeds end in an atomized society where the powerful, wealthy, and healthy dominate the powerless, poor, and sick. It would be a triumph of social Darwinism over compassion and lived solidarity – a denial of what Christ taught us. Growing numbers of young people react against this individualism which jeopardizes their future and that of society as a whole. Compared with the boomer generation and my generation, they get more involved in charitable work and care more about those facing loneliness – helping with foodbanks and looking after those who are lonely.

    There is also a pragmatic case for universal civic service. The more friends people can make with those from other cultural, ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds, especially when they are young, the greater their social connectedness and their life chances. And a year of service can also equip young people and new citizens with valuable work experience and training, preparing them for their careers and their life as adult citizens.

    It would help significantly if the service year were paid at the level of the national living wage (a Christian idea to enable a person to feed themselves and their family), if it applied to both men and women, and if it were the prerequisite to other parts of life. For example, a service gap year might be a requirement to enroll in college, but would also result in a tuition discount. Those who initially want to get on with their studies would have the option of doing their service year after graduation and up until the age of thirty. I’d allow exceptions for people going into longer-term service fields, such as nursing, medicine, or joining the military. If someone left their job as a teacher or in the army before completing, say, five years of service, they would have to do a year of national civic service.

    A legal duty may seem heavy-handed, but a strong measure is needed to change the dominant culture of entitlement and a thin sense of obligation toward others.

    The national civic service I imagine would have three strands: a national nature service, a national society service, and a national emergency service. The first could be modeled on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Then as now, such a program could save millions of young people across the West from precarious employment or unemployment while also protecting the natural world from the forces of consumerism and the global economy.

    A national nature service would take on ecological projects aimed at improving access to natural spaces for poor households, especially from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups. These interventions would help to address health and social inequalities and safeguard natural biodiversity. The program would be centrally funded, but implementation would depend on local partners – state or municipal government and community organizations, including religious groups.

    For example, in the United Kingdom a coalition of over fifty green groups drew up a list of 330 shovel-ready projects: flower meadows, “tiny forests” in cities, and hillside schemes to cut flooding, among other admittedly small but nonetheless significant steps in the right direction. Funding the projects and training workers would create up to ten thousand jobs and could be part of a green economic recovery from Covid and inflation. They estimate that two hundred thousand hectares of habitat in both rural and coastal areas could be saved, offering better access to nature for many thousands of people and helping to reverse the decline in biodiversity at a cost of just £315 million.

    Fighting climate change has to happen at the macro level (of international carbon emissions targets) but it must also be anchored in our everyday experience. We must link different scales: from the personal to the communal, and from the local to the national, and to the international.

    a bag full of empty cans

    Photograph by Joe Whalen

    A national nature service mends the natural ecosystem. To strengthen civic bonds and the political ecosystem requires the parallel work of a new national society service. This form of service could include the young and the old, working together to help elderly people at home, in hospitals or in care homes; mentoring children in schools or extra-curricular activities; and helping new residents integrate into the communities by teaching them English and civic duty. For the young who are un(der)employed, their time in this service will provide paid work, skills training, and a deep sense of civic connection and shared obligations. For newly naturalized people who offer their service year in this program, the Society Service would be an orientation to stewarding both our cultural inheritance and the natural world.

    Finally, the national emergency service would support a more expansive idea of “national security” than the military is designed to safeguard. This service corps would focus on national resilience, working to stabilize supplies of food, water, and energy, and improve and expand transportation and manufacturing capacity. Those enrolled in the emergency strand would also help with natural disaster relief. They’d provide immediate support in the case of major storms, and stave off slow disasters by improving irrigation in drought-prone areas and filling in coastal areas affected by erosion.

    These three programs would be the foundation of a renewed social covenant. A universal program creates a new solidarity in a nation divided between the governing elites and the governed people. No one’s education is complete without exposure to the need of others, and the growing hope that each of us can help. FDR was right when he said, “we cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” It’s an idea whose time has come – to reweave the social fabric that has been torn ragged by the growth of individualism and consumerism and the parallel hollowing out of social and religious community. Compulsory national service would support young people and give them and all of us hope for a more communitarian future.

    Contributed By AdrianPabst Adrian Pabst

    Adrian Pabst is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and Deputy Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

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