On a clear summer evening, we squinted into the sun setting over the softball field on our U.S. Army base in Germany. One of my friends, who hailed from a small Pennsylvania town, said: “Look out there, Will, and tell me that isn’t cool. There’s a good old boy from West Virginia pitching; in center field, we have a black power-lifter from Florida; in right field, there’s a Puerto Rican; at first base, an Irish-American from South Boston. I went to West Point, and you went to Princeton. If we were back home, what would be the chances that all of our paths would ever cross?”
I was reminded of that moment the other night as my wife and I watched the final scene of the great TV miniseries Band of Brothers, in which the soldiers play softball as the narrator explains what became of them after the war. After a few moments sitting in stunned silence as the credits rolled, in awe of the almost unimaginable self-sacrifice of Dick Winters and the men of Easy Company, Band of Brothers gave way to a cable news show and its cacophony of pundits shouting party-issued talking points at one another, without a trace of original thought. It was hard to avoid a sense of melancholy at the abrupt transition from Easy Company’s selfless service to today’s toxic political discourse, and to a social fabric that appears to be unraveling along partisan and socioeconomic lines.
How has the country for which our grandparents sacrificed so much come to this?
Yes, we have serious issues, but we are not confronted with an imminent existential threat. We are not experiencing anything as ruinous as the Civil War or either of our world wars. So why this sense that the ties that bind our country together are fraying while we furiously pull in opposite directions?
One powerful step that could begin moving us toward a sense of shared destiny would be a period of national service, either military or civil. The question over whether it should be mandatory, or merely incentivized and encouraged, as the bipartisan Franklin Project is working toward, can be debated. But, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal writes, the “need to create a culture of service where we are all invested in our nation’s future and feel a shared sense of responsibility to our nation and to each other” should not require extensive deliberation.
Many Americans have just about given up on our political class, sensing that it does little besides raise money and protect incumbency. This political paralysis threatens the health of our republic more than the Islamic State, or ISIS, ever could. Though many have “chosen sides” in this self-defeating political blood sport, how many feel inspired by a sense of a collective national mission? But watching the selflessness of the Band of Brothers soldiers as they jumped into Normandy and endured the Battle of the Bulge reminds us of what Americans are capable of, and that we do not need to resign ourselves to this civic fragmentation.
In a society that continues to divide between red states and blue, between the very rich and everyone else, encouraging everyone to spend a year working together to perform a mission focused on the collective good would bridge some of the divides that are weakening us as a country. How often do the “coastal elites” express befuddlement at the support for Donald Trump, confiding to one another that they’ve “never met a Trump voter”? Likewise, some people in the reddest of counties rarely, if ever, come face to face with a committed progressive. Last month’s “Brexit” vote, when Britain elected to leave the European Union, illustrates what happens when socioeconomic elites grow so detached from the rest of the citizenry that a factory worker in Manchester seems more foreign to a banker in London than a fellow financier in Frankfurt.
Throw us all together as bunkmates in military basic training, though, or in the austere conditions of the FEMA Corps or the Peace Corps, and it is possible that the shared sacrifice could help us see what we have in common and feel more invested in our collective success.
Would the experience lead to instant national harmony? No. But it would help us to humanize those whom we may otherwise be conditioned to disdain by partisan insiders and their media enablers who perversely benefit from the increasingly corrosive status quo.
Remarkably, the demand of those looking to serve actually exceeds the supply of opportunities. Beyond military service, we need not look far to see domestic problems that could be addressed by a workforce of thousands of young people, from our crumbling infrastructure to our deteriorating school systems to widespread homelessness.
The benefits of service would go beyond the children taught by Teach for America or homes built by Habitat for Humanity. It would even go beyond the estimated $4 returned to society in benefits for every $1 invested in these programs. The most valuable result would be in the volunteers themselves, many of whom would go on to become more productive and engaged citizens, as studies of AmeriCorps have shown of its alumni.
My friend’s observation about our Army softball game was simple yet profound. It is why so many veterans, when asked what they miss about the military, mention the camaraderie and shared sense of purpose. If we are lucky, circumstances will not soon require the scale of self-sacrifice exhibited by the greatest generation. But the type of brotherhood displayed on that German softball field should not be beyond our reach.
National service is an idea whose time has come – assuming it’s not already too late.
Will Bardenwerper is an Arlington, Virginia-based writer who served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army and as a civilian employee in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He wrote this column for The Washington Post.