No cause is so noble that it won't attract fuggheads (Niven’s Law #17). Which, naturally, brings me to Peter Buttigieg.
Now I don’t want to refer to anybody who holds such an august position as mayor of a middle-sized city in Indiana as a fugghead, but it’s hard to take seriously a man who calls himself “Mayor Pete,” not if he aspires to any position requiring more gravitas than community organizer of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. Still, I think Hizzonor is onto something with his talk about national service.
I know the arguments in opposition; they’ve been well made right here at Liberty — that universal service, whether mandatory or just customary, is a form of slavery. And I yield to no one in my admiration for Lori Heine and Stephen Cox, both as to their talents as writers and the acuity of the thinking that illuminates their writing, but I believe they’re missing an important point about slavery. And citizenship, for that matter. To start with, I don’t think universal service has anything to do with slavery.
It’s hard to take seriously a man who calls himself “Mayor Pete,” not if he aspires to any position requiring more gravitas than community organizer of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Nobody would accuse the citizens of ancient Athens of being slaves. That’s what they had slaves for. The citizens ran the place and elected their leaders and debated in the agora. Some headed up schools of philosophy during business hours, and spent their spare time embarrassing people in the street by asking questions the people couldn’t answer. Socrates was famous for that. He also put in a lot of time in national service. In his case, the infantry. Heavy infantry hoplites fitted out with up to 30 kilos of armor, greaves, shield, spear, sword, helmet. Socrates served in the military, when Athens needed infantry, from his early twenties straight through to his late forties. Close to 30 years: two in training, others disputing against Potidaeans, then Boeotians, and then Spartans.
Here’s why we Americans should care: it was the philosophers who did the fighting, not the slaves, because slaves weren’t citizens, philosophers were, and military service was a badge of citizenship. Even a philosopher who questioned pretty much everything else never asked whether his talents were best suited to the infantry. I don’t know what reasons a middle-aged Socrates would have given for picking up all that gear and heading off to battle time after time, other than that it was his duty as a citizen, but here’s a list of reasons why I think Americans should do national service.
1. The Islam Principle (also applies to academics who can’t get it out of their heads that somewhere, someplace, communism will actually work, members of Kool-Aid cults, people who’ve spent 30 years in psychotherapy, and those who think Hillary Clinton should have another go at the presidency).
Socrates served in the military, when Athens needed infantry, from his early twenties straight through to his late forties.
It doesn’t cost anything to be an American, and it should. There’s a principle in psychology that the more it takes to obtain something the more valuable that something is. Also in economics. You can see this in what people give up to become Muslims: alcohol; bacon; companionable relations with the other sex; the right of women not to be dehumanized by having to wear special costumes when they step out of the house; the right not to dissipate one’s wealth on overpriced trips to Mecca . . . I could go on. It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to know it’s the sense of community that Muslims derive from mutually suffering through this nonsense that gives Islam the strength to resist the otherwise universal solvent of Enlightenment values.
2. Everybody needs a little skin in the game. Not only are Americans not required to serve in our military; 44% of us don’t even pay federal taxes. But we all expect the military to protect us. We expect air-traffic controllers to keep our planes from bumping into things. We expect the FDA to keep our food from killing us. We expect interstate highway bridges not to collapse beneath us. We expect our harbors not to silt up. We expect . . . oh, you get the point. The 44% of us who don’t pay for any of this, and the 93% who never serve in the military, expect it as much as everybody else.
It’s moral hazard. It’s easy come easy go. It’s welfare queens, rentseekers, and trust-fund babies.
3. The Eisenhower Principle. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of the military as an institution. One of the things you learn from having served is how wasteful, how bloated, how bureaucratic, how just plain stupid the military can be, and that’s not a bad thing for our civilian leaders to know from personal experience.
It doesn’t cost anything to be an American, and it should.
Ike didn’t drop the bomb in Korea, and he didn’t drop it all over again when the Red Chinese were threatening Quemoy and Matsu, even though just about every general he talked with was hounding him to do just that. He knew enough about the military, he knew enough about strategic thinking and, especially, he knew enough about military leaders not to be bullied into doing the wrong thing. I’m not saying every candidate for president should be a five-star general, but I am saying that having leaders who’ve spent enough time in the military to know not to take military people too seriously might save a lot of us from some serious incineration down the road.
4. To know, know, know them is to . . . well, if you don’t love all of them, at least the ones you dislike you dislike because they’re jerks. Here’s another principle in psychology: You’re scared of people you don’t know.
In the military you do know them. You know them because you live in a big room with them. I was a white boy from the suburbs of Atlanta bunking with tough, rural whites; a guy who claimed to be connected to one of the New York crime families and might well have been; a guy from Mississippi who said his family were Druids who’d immigrated to America in the 1700s; sharecroppers; northern whites with hideous, aggressive accents who looked like they stole things; a lawyer; a cowboy who called everybody “partner”; a campus cop from the University of Colorado who’d let himself into the room containing photos from Project Bluebook and came away convinced that flying saucers were real; an African-American chemist who went AWOL and never came back; Chicanos who didn’t want us to eat grapes; ghetto blacks who called each other “nigger” and probably had knives to back it up; and an Eskimo. It all seemed very strange.
One of the things you learn from having served is how wasteful, how bloated, how bureaucratic, how just plain stupid the military can be.
It’s remarkable how that changed. By the time I got out of the army we’d become relaxed around each other and funny. We were loud and raucous and sang along with the Righteous Brothers or Creedence or Waylon and worried about what our girlfriends were up to but, mostly, we just wanted to go home . . . all except the chemist, who may have already been home for all anybody knew. I came to admire some, I never liked all of them, but I liked most of them, and I liked some of them a lot. And the ones I didn’t like, I didn’t like because I didn’t like them personally, not as representativesof something or other I’d never met. It’s not just our leaders who need experience in the military; it’s our people who need experience of America.
5. It makes one hell of a gap year (or two). I’m not going to say that I enjoyed every moment I was in the army. There were times, and plenty of them, I would gladly have been almost anywhere else. But that doesn’t mean I’m not glad I did it. I wasn’t even sorry at the time.
For a young man who’d done nothing more exciting than sit in school and keep his mouth shut while people talked at him, the army scratched a primordial itch. Instead of telling me to sit still and listen, the army told me to run around and yell, and the faster I ran and the louder I yelled, the better they liked it. The army gave me a gun to shoot and things to throw that blew up. It sent me to a strange foreign place and gave me a boat to drive. That was fun and interesting and exotic. There were strange foreign people along the river banks and in sampans, and they were interesting and exotic, too. Sometimes, I got to throw things in their direction that blew up and, other times, they tried to blow me up. I can’t say all that was fun, but I sure wasn’t the same person when I came home. And I was glad of that. I especially wasn’t anything like the people who never went, and I’m even gladder about that. I was stronger and more mature, and had seen some of the world and had a pretty good sense of how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, and it didn’t have much to do with what the people who wanted me to sit at desks and be quiet thought I should do. And I’m most glad about that.
6. It would put a stop to store clerks thanking you for your service. Not that this annoys me, exactly, but these thank yous never seem to reek of sincerity. Now, I’m the last one to argue that Home Depot should discontinue its discount for veterans. Ten percent off goes a long way on big-ticket items. It’s just that the store clerks who thank me don’t know whether I ran a typewriter at Fort Dix or a patrol boat on the Saigon River, which doesn’t make me feel like I’m being thanked for anything I specifically did. Mostly the thankyous come across as smarmy, and hints at some kind of psychiatric sugar-coating for people who either feel smug about not having been in the army or secretly wish they’d had a bit more adventure when they were young. At bottom, I’m just not persuaded that anybody should be thanked for serving in the military. Nobody thanks you for paying taxes. Or sitting on a jury. Or voting. Those are duties that come with citizenship.
Instead of telling me to sit still and listen, the army told me to run around and yell.
I’ve been running on about the military, as if that were the only way to accomplish any of this; but, of course, it’s not. For one thing, the military couldn’t accommodate that many people, and God save the republic if it tried. There are plenty of other things our nation needs doing, not the least of which is just doing things together.
7. Life is better when you’re the landowner. Fifteen, twenty years ago I was at an overlook at Bryce when this old guy got out of his car and walked over and admired the trail leading down into the canyon. The trail was wet and sloppy and stuck so thoroughly to your boots from late-season snow that it was like trying to walk in glue, and boy did that old guy love that trail. When he was a teenager he’d been in the Civilian Conservation Corps and he’d built it. “That trail, right there.”
Sixty or so years later he still came to visit it sometimes. His trail, the one we were looking at. That trail, right there. His wife stayed in the car and harrumphed. She’d been through this before. And she’d never been in the CCC.
There are plenty of things our nation needs doing, not the least of which is just doing things together.
OK, I can hear what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Bill? Bill? The CCC? Really? Enough with this collectivist talk.
But I don’t see it that way. It seems to me I’m talking about responsibility, which is as far from collectivism as you can get because collectivists don’t take responsibility for anything, least of all the country they live in. Collectivists expect the country to take responsibility for them. We’re the libertarians. We’re the ones who take responsibility. We take responsibility for ourselves. We take responsibility for the people we care about. And, at least if you’re me, we’re the ones who should take responsibility for our country as a whole . . . because if we leave it up to the collectivists we’re not going to have a country. At least not a country any of us would want to live in.