Common Service: An Uncommon Virtue in Our Time

Aidan Turek ’20

Opinion Editor

I’m a senior, and there’s hardly a moment when I’m not thinking about life after graduation. In all your time here, with professors and advisors suggesting graduate school or job offerings, has anyone ever suggested joining the armed forces? Probably not. There’s not a big military presence at Trinity. In fact, there’s none at all, but it wasn’t always like that. The Reserve Officer Training Corps existed here too, until it was abolished in 1969. Trinity is hardly exceptional. After the drawdown of conscription and the introduction of the Selective Service Act and the All-Volunteer Force in the 1970s, we’ve seen a sea change in how our society thinks of soldiers.

America today is stymied by countless paradoxes when it comes to its fighting men and women. On one hand, we hold them up as valorous heroes, brave warriors who are doing their part to keep us safe. But that logic goes only so far. Service is hardly representative, and a loathsome quarter of our nation honor our soldiers with one breath while instructing their children to avoid military service with the next. Nowadays, those who serve in the All-Volunteer Force are a mixed bag. There are the generational soldiers. There are those who failed at civilian life. There are those who needed to pay for school, or support their families, or escape an abusive household. One thing can be said for certain: the All-Volunteer Force is not representative of the nation at large.

The task of defending the country falls unfairly on those who have little in the way of opportunities. This is not at all to suggest that service is an ignoble profession. I believe the opposite to be true. Historically, serving one’s country has been a way to demonstrate loyalty and courage. African-American soldiers fought and died to save the Union in the Civil War, as did Japanese Americans in Italy in the Second World War, dying for a nation that had enslaved them and put their families in camps. Military service can be a channel for social progress, for national betterment, because it is one of the purest forms of self-sacrifice. The very term national service is suggestive of its import; they exist for the national good, same as teachers, the police, civil servants. And it is one of the most venerated because of the inherent risks of being a soldier. Death on the battlefield is the most obvious, but hardly the only sacrifice asked of soldiers. Years of PTSD can accompany service and treatment is lacking even today.

Yet this national service is not nationally distributed. I’ve met many enlisted women and men for whom military service is an escape—which, while it does not demean their sacrifice for the nation, does not bode well for what is ostensibly a volunteer force. However, the fact is that some escape service altogether. One of those populations are the well-to-do, and, typically, college students.

ROTC wasn’t abolished at Trinity in a vacuum. Trinity kids didn’t want to serve in Vietnam. They went to college to avoid being drafted. And the arguments to maintain ROTC are framed as helping kids stay out of being drafted. That’s exactly how Bill Clinton and Donald Trump escaped serving in Vietnam, while John McCain and John Kerry both served, with distinction, alongside some nine million other Americans in Vietnam. One of the biggest reasons ROTC programs nation-wide were abandoned was to keep college students from national service. More cynically, when the nation asked for some to serve in Vietnam, the middle class on up to the richest gave hearty assent. When the nation asked for them to serve, they got rid of the war. In other words, when the armed forces represent the nation, the decision on where, and for what reasons, to use them is genuinely democratic. To honor soldiers while simultaneously never considering service ourselves is the basest hypocrisy.

My message is simple. I want more people to match words with deeds and to take an honest moment to consider national service. We don’t necessarily need ROTC at Trinity, nor should we reinstate conscription. But leaving the heavy task of national service to the few who take it upon themselves creates a distinct class of soldiers who, not unjustly, consider themselves unfairly burdened. That distance between the soldier and the civilian lets us send our citizens-at-arms thousands of miles away to die for uncertain aims without a second thought. In this American democracy, we must stand true to the ancient tradition of the citizen soldier: to serve one’s country, whether as a teacher, a doctor, a police officer, or a soldier, is the common civic duty of every American, just as it is everyone’s civic duty to vote. Or, as the Marine Corps puts it, we don’t want more soldiers—we want better citizens.