Academic journal article Parameters

Binding the Nation: National Service in America

Academic journal article Parameters

Binding the Nation: National Service in America

Article excerpt

The United States has been at war for more than seven years, and the end to its struggle against religious extremism is nowhere in sight. Thus far the majority of the campaign has been waged by the military. With the prolonged counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq has come a growing realization that more alienated youth could appear on the world's battlefields unless the United States begins to win more decisively the war of ideas.

There is broad agreement among scholars and government officials that "soft power," the power to persuade, is essential as the core element of America's response to al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups. International opprobrium regarding extraterritorial rendition of terrorist suspects and the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib has greatly damaged America's reputation, although the recent reorientation in US diplomatic positions and military techniques is beginning to restore that esteem. To offer the world more than the prevailing image of a heavy-handed hegemon, the United States will have to shed the sense of fear that has characterized so much of America's domestic and international rhetoric in the new century. To renew the values that make this nation strong will require a strong sense of American identity, as well as a willingness and readiness to face pressing national challenges. There is little in the recent fabric of American political or cultural life to encourage such a sense of common resolve, but without a competing positive reality to offer the world, countering the lure of extremism's narrative may prove beyond reach.

Americans today share little in the way of a national "story," especially one consisting of shared experiences and struggles. The populace is two generations beyond World War II, the last war that demanded and received the full measure of America's dedication and resolve. Wartime service of any kind has touched relatively few Americans, and other programs of service to the nation have attracted limited participation. In the years following 9/11, the idea of civilian national service has received renewed consideration on the part of thinkers and politicians. Without strong national leadership on the issue, however, this debate has generated little action. Given the promise the concept of national service holds for strengthening the foundations of America's national identity, the moment is ripe for new voices to emerge on its behalf. This article argues that civilian national service can contribute to the nation by forging a new sense of national community, rebuilding the connection between the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and restoring sound civil-military relationships. In many ways, the groundwork has already been laid, but the existing spark of an idea needs to be fanned into reality.

Challenges

Protracted International Struggle

With hindsight, Americans will understand the struggle in which the United States is currently engaged far better than is now possible. Terminology such as "the Global War on Terrorism" probably will not sufficiently define the conflict in the end, given that term's unsatisfying focus on a tactic of warfare and the diffuse nature of the adversary it implies. Whatever the descriptor, it is a generational struggle that has high stakes for the future of the United States and the world. With the results obtained to date after seven years of conflict, it is now clear that a purely military solution is inadequate. The depths of anger and alienation that are the wellspring of insurgent recruitment cannot be completely eradicated by means of bombs and bullets.

Getting at the roots of an insurgency has, throughout history, involved the application of a combination of "hard" and "soft" power. This formula has never been more true than at the present, when terrorism's proponents are able to draw from a seemingly worldwide supply of disaffected peoples. …

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