A high school classmate of mine recently posted a notice on a Facebook webpage to which we both subscribe about the passing of her younger brother, Peter. Peter, as it turned out was a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard. After serving for four years he attended college as a radio broadcast major. He graduated as valedictorian of his class and became involved in the administration of his college alma mater for thirty years, many of those years spent in financial services as the bursar. His sister and his colleagues noted that he always had a special concern for those who had given service to their country in the armed forces. “Peter really felt that it was not just his job or the college’s job,” remarked one of his colleagues in her reflections on his life, “but the job of all of us really, to make sure that veterans are taken care of when they come back.”
I could not agree more. My own father served in the U.S. Army infantry in the Italian campaign in World War II. In the wake of recent Memorial Day and Independence Day celebrations and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, I have been thinking about the role of service to country and love of country in our lives and in our national culture. Where do they really fit?
While it feels as if it has been burned into our DNA, love of country and national identity are really fairly recent phenomena in human civilization. Five hundred years ago we had no national identities as we know them today in this hemisphere (and a mishmash of such identities in the “old world”). There were no Brazilians ready to die if their team does not successfully defend the Cup on home turf. There were no Jamaicans believing it to be their birthright to shave another few tenths of a second off the world record for the hundred meter dash. None of the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan [modern day Mexico City], Lomaki [modern day Flagstaff, AZ] or NunatuKavut [modern day Labrador] were brought to tears by a national anthem, a national flag, or other symbol of national identity. Yet today that is not an unusual emotion or sentiment across most of the globe—from Korea to Israel, to Ethiopia, to Colombia, to China.
I certainly love my country and my fellow countrymen and countrywomen as much as the next member of my species—though there have certainly been episodes and behaviors that I am not proud of. But the idea of a scheme of required national service in the United States really excites me! I would love to see our youth, in addition to compulsory K-12 education, be required to give a year of service to their country sometime before they attain their 25th birthday. (I know that some families and faith communities already embrace this concept.) That service could entail protecting the country or defending its borders, or conserving its forests and natural resources, or tending to the needs of its under-privileged.
Since I ascribe to the notion that “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens”, I would even be pleased if Americans carried out their “national service” anywhere on the planet. After all, we are the country that first established (or at least popularized) the idea of the “Peace Corps” and we have certainly come to recognize that elimination of poverty, eradication of disease, sound stewardship of the environment and natural resources, emancipation of women, mutual appreciation among and between faith communities and many other efforts critical to fostering a peaceful and prosperous life in the 21st Century have no regard for national boundaries and are in every country’s national and best interest.
As Peter suggested, it is incumbent upon each of us to make sure that veterans who have selflessly served their country, often at great risk to life and limb, should be honored and cared for. But if we all served, if each of us gave at least one year of service with only a basic stipend in remuneration, then we would all be veterans of service to country—and service to humanity—and worthy of that mark of distinction.