Complacency, a threat greater than any storm, has had us in a death grip. The flags attract not so much as a sideways glance from motorists and iPod-insulated joggers. Not that the faded flags bother me so much: It’s the fact that no one gives a tinker’s damn about anything but himself.
That the country is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan is pretty much ignored by most of us. We eat our cornflakes, update our Facebook page, text friends and grouse about right-wing zealots. Meanwhile, our surrogates are patrolling the mean streets of Baghdad and Kabul. Do you know anyone in the fight? Probably not. Just onehalf of 1 percent of Americans is fighting our country’s wars. The rest of us are— yawn!—lounging, tweeting, multitasking, flipping through the channels. But we support the troops, by God! The bumper stickers prove it.
It seems to me that bumper stickers and lapel pins are puny gestures when our way of life is reportedly under attack by Islamists. George W. Bush spent seven years making the case that the danger to America was so immediate, extraordinary defensive measures had to be implemented. I can’t help but feel that if the threat were so serious, the government would have given me something to do. Such was the case when we were fighting the North Vietnamese. Local Draft Board 21 was very clear about the part I was to play in the national defense. Not that I was in agreement, mind you; I wanted to go to graduate school. And there were the girlfriend, the golf cronies at Bonneville, the trout stream near Kamas—all of which counted for naught. The draft board insisted it was my turn to serve.
I was never a gung-ho soldier. But I have to admit that, while serving the country, I received something in return. The benefits of my time in uniform were skewed in my favor—I got more than I gave. As a result, I have come to view national service as a win-win arrangement—good for all young people and good for the country. I don’t think service needs to be rendered with a rifle in hand—a shovel, laptop, textbook or monkey wrench would do just as well— but I do think everyone needs to act on the inherent responsibility of citizenship and devote a year or so to benefit the nation.
Complacency has blinkered us, however. Even the most basic of all citizen obligations—voting— is often ignored. In Utah, barely half the eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2008 election. Although Utahns lead the country in volunteerism, few join the regular Army. I doubt Utah is well represented in the ranks of the Peace Corps, Teach for America or AmeriCorps, either.
I rarely agree with Utah’s senior senator, Orrin Hatch, but I give him credit for joining the late Ted Kennedy in sponsoring the Serve America Act, a $6 billion measure that increased the ranks of AmeriCorps volunteers by 175,000. It was a tiny step in the right direction.
The real problem is that most of us Americans have lost our bearings. Blinded by complacency, we have wandered into a swamp where we are foundering under the weight of debt, recession, climate change, deteriorating infrastructure and misbegotten war.
What to do? The answer depends on the answer to a more fundamental question— what does a citizen owe his country? Ours asks very little of us. Vote, serve on a jury, pay taxes—that’s about it. The requirement to serve in the military was effectively set aside in 1973 with the advent of the all-volunteer force. Most of us pay lip service to patriotism; damned few act on it. We happily receive the benefits of citizenship. It’s the reciprocal that gives pause. What we as citizens need is to balance our benefits and our obligations. Americans must move beyond the mindset of “what’s good for me” to “what’s good for us.” The latter is the litmus test of patriotism. The former is the taproot of complacency.Complacency, a threat greater than any storm, has had us in a death grip.
A program of universal national service would open the door to action. It would free young Americans from the paralytic grip of complacency while providing a channel to put their youthful idealism to use. There are other advantages. To the extent that compulsory national service might bring middle-class kids into the ranks of the Army, such military adventurism as the invasion of Iraq would be reined in. Schemers like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney go unchecked when the sons and daughters of the privileged class do not serve in uniform. The sad truth is that the tiny percentage of the population enduring successive deployments to the battlefields has no political influence.
In the elapsed months since I lingered in Sugar House Park in front of the forlorn service flags, my thoughts have often turned to Thomas Paine’s “sunshine patriot” indictment of those who put “I” before “we” in a time of crisis. In the complex crises facing America today, the talent, skills and sweat of all are needed. In the president’s words, we need to harness patriotism in such a way that we address needs with deeds.
Private Eye is off this week. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.