Letter to the editor: National service versus America

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Alexander Cohen

Charlie Rangel wants to give you a job, and he doesn’t want to let you turn it down.

Rangel, a Democratic Congressman from New York, is proposing a law that would force every young American to perform two years of national service – possibly even military service – starting by the age of 25. College students could postpone service, but only until they graduate or turn 24.

Some of the costs H.R. 748 would impose on you are obvious: It would take away two irreplaceable years of your life, spending them on purposes that may not contribute to your goals. It might cause skills you’ve developed in high school or college to waste away from lack of practice before you can bring them to the school or career! where you want to build on them. And it could disrupt important relationships, sending you far from the people who are important to you.

That’s saying nothing about the physical and psychological harms you could suffer if you’re forced to go into combat – harms Congressman Rangel, who was wounded in the Korean War, knows very well and still wants to impose on unwilling victims. It’s saying nothing about the possibility that you might be sent to war and never come back.

But beyond all those obvious costs to you, the bill risks subtler costs we can’t afford to overlook – costs to you, costs to the country, and costs to all of us, even those (like him and me) who’d be exempted on account of age.

Rangel thinks this bill would teach patriotism. “You may go in screaming and yelling,” he says, “but when you come out, you salute the flag.” In other words, you might go in hating what your country is doing to you, but you’ll come out honoring the government that did it!

You will have been forced into the habit of doing whatever the government tells you and, if you’re in uniform, of saluting and obeying all the vast hierarchy of officers the government placed over you.

That is the opposite of the way a free society teaches patriotism, and that is the opposite of the kind of patriotism a free society needs.

A free society earns its citizens’ patriotism by protecting their rights. More precisely, a government earns respect, affection, and loyalty by making and enforcing laws under which people can live their lives, exercise their liberty, and pursue their own happiness. In such a society, you can see that your government is providing the security you count on – that it’s protecting you from criminals, from foreign enemies, and from anyone who, under the guise of government, would take over your life. When you see that your government is performing that vital function, valuing it is a matter of justice.

And a free society needs its citizens’ patriotism to protect all its citizens’ rights. In voting, in serving on juries, and in countless other ways, Americans are called upon to stand up for freedom. That means being prepared to say no to authority figures: to incumbent presidents who trample liberty, to prosecutors who accuse innocent people, to police officers who abuse suspects, to legislators who propose unjust laws, and so on. When neither you nor someone especially important to you is an obvious victim, it’s your patriotism, your liberty-loving patriotism, that tells you to stand up for the principles of freedom – because you count on those principles being upheld when it’s your freedom on the line. But if you accept Charlie Rangel’s kind of patriotism, the kind that salutes even when your own freedom is taken away, you give up the kind of patriotism that won’t let anyone’s rights be trampled if you can help it.

Email: acohen@atlassociety.org

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