The idea that a citizen of a country should serve it in a military or civil capacity is nothing new. Many countries around the globe have mandatory military service that able-bodied young adults are required to complete. Arguments for Americans to do the same have been proposed in various forms for decades. Some people see it as an essential stepping stone for civil society, others as an exercise to build empathy and character. The truth is, the idea of mandatory civil or military service is, at best, misguided. The mandatory service would impose on the citizens’ freedom of choice, make them miserable, and place them under a financial burden while doing more harm than good. The idea is steeped in the philosophy of Eric Greitens, but he only took that responsibility upon himself, rather than push it onto the rest of the population.
Basing a particular part of the state or the economy on compelled labor with no pay, no benefits, and no guaranteed standards is dangerous. If the practice of mandatory civil or military service becomes law, the breach of which will likely lead to imprisonment, people will have no choice but to work where they are told to work. For example, the US military incentivizes enlistment by a salary and benefits, such as providing college tuition to veterans. However, if enlistment is enforced by law, there is no reason to keep any of these benefits, and no reason to care for the wellbeing of any individual soldier since every year there are guaranteed to be new ones. The military is likely to rely on that labor, rather than attempt to compensate and incentivize soldiers, which will lead to a significant decrease both in their quality of life and the strength and prestige of the US military.
If individuals are forced to sacrifice a year of their lives and put themselves in danger under the threat of legal punishment, it is unlikely that they will find the profound meaning that Eric Greitens wrote about. In fact, he described the compelled military servicemen very succinctly in the form of the corrupt and lazy soldiers in Zaire. “The soldier inside reeked of alcohol. […] Thrusting his hand under my nose, he rubbed his thumb against his other four fingers. He wanted money” (Greitens, p. 75). The soldier clearly wanted to be anywhere else than on his post. He resorted to using his position of meager power to rob people to afford his drink as the only diversion in his life. That is not the behavior of a selfless volunteer that has realized his potential. If Americans are deprived of choice, they will not fare much better, and everyone around them will suffer as well.
From the standpoint of a regular American, the federal government heaping additional responsibilities onto its citizens is needless and even cruel. Most Americans already have quite enough civil service they have to do for far longer than a year. That service is called a job, and to say that any given job is not beneficial to society at large is a misnomer. Requiring every citizen to go through a year of unpaid full-time labor would prevent them from doing the good they already do, and may even prevent them from earning enough money and company healthcare benefits to survive. Millions of Americans work all day, and yet live paycheck to paycheck. Adding civil or military service to that lifestyle is not only unnecessary but sadistic.
The sadism and absurdity of that proposition lie in the very definition of volunteering, which conceals its intrinsic value. Volunteering means performing a task voluntarily, of one’s own volition, as a conscious choice and willing effort. The reason people generally admire volunteers is that making a voluntary choice to sacrifice one’s time and effort to help someone and get nothing in return is difficult. Many people would not be able to make that choice, because they are concerned about their own wellbeing and that of their loved ones. Foregoing that self-interest to assist a group of strangers, especially on the other side of the world, is a difficult commitment that few people make. That scarcity, goodwill, and selflessness make volunteering precious both for society and the volunteers themselves. However, making it mandatory removes that preciousness strips volunteering of its value, and destroys all of its good intentions. Volunteering cannot be mandatory by the very definition of the word.
The arguments presented in favor of the mandatory service are based on the experience of someone who has performed it. Greitens explains: “you develop leadership skills, are exposed to new career possibilities and make connections between what you study and your ability to make a difference in someone’s life” (Greitens 211). Of course, that passage is completely true, and the choice to be a volunteer can be as life-defining for somebody as it was for Greitens. Helping the people that need help is incredibly rewarding, and it makes the world a slightly better place. However, the most crucial factor here is that it was a choice, which Greitens made by himself, because it was important to him, and because he was the kind of person that would make this choice. All of the leadership potential, human compassion, and a drive to challenge oneself were in Greitens since he was young. He reveled in punishment, pushed himself to the limit, and sacrificed a lot of his time and effort to pursue things that mattered to him. He writes: “I felt more beaten than I ever had after any practice, any race, any workout. I couldn’t wait to go back for more” (Greitens, p. 40). When his boxing instructor put him through a brutal training regimen, he enjoyed it, because that was the kind of person he was. Similarly, he sacrificed his time and put his life in very real danger to pursue volunteering opportunities and military training, because it mattered to him. That said, not everybody is like him, as different people want to pursue different things in life. Making it mandatory for everybody to serve will make some people as miserable as the homeless, the orphans, and the refugees they will be forced to help. There will never be a shortage of kind-hearted and driven people who will choose to volunteer. Thus, giving everyone that choice is beneficial and even necessary, but making it for them is absolutely unacceptable.
Greitens wrote about the horrors of war, yet he chose to become a soldier because he was stronger than the desire to rape and pillage. He lamented the listless veterans who were thanked for their ultimate sacrifice and then discarded. He enjoyed the work he did and connected with the people in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Bolivia on a human level. People who can do that are rare, which is why they are celebrated. Forcing every American citizen to try and replicate that life serves no purpose and is a very misguided idea. Ultimately, America is built upon liberty and freedom, and the notion of forced service is antithetical to what America stands for.