The discussion on National Service gives us an opportunity to explore the civic meaning, significance and operation of our first Government Agency, our Army. One could also say, metaphorically at least, that the Army is older than the Nation. It fought to secure the opportunity for nationhood. The Army itself in Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution presents an excellent history of its creation. What that history makes clear is that our founding Army was lead and “manned” by citizens who “passionately believed that defense of life and liberty was an integral part of the citizen's duties, not something that could be left to a professional force responsible to a distant government.”
Do we still think of service in the military as a duty of citizenship?
That is a difficult question for me, since I lived through a period when young men were expected to answer the call of a draft. But perhaps, the question is less difficult for you who have always lived in an era when young Americans had unfettered choice concerning Military service. So let us simply say that your generation of citizens has no duty to serve in the military.
Would you say that we who do not serve in the military have any duty as citizens to those who do serve in our military?
George Washington had a clear answer to that question; it is an answer that tells us much about him as Commander-in-Chief and also about his fears that the soldier would be forgotten after the War of Independence.
Washington’s Farewell to the Armies of the United States
“It is universally acknowledged, that the enlarged prospects of happiness, opened by the confirmation of our independance and sovereignty, almost exceeds the power of description. And shall not the brave men, who have contributed so essentially to these inestimable acquisitions, retiring victorious from the field of War to the field of agriculture, participate in all the blessings which have been obtained; in such a republic, who will exclude them from the rights of Citizens and the fruits of their labour. In such a Country, so happily circumstanced, the pursuits of Commerce and the cultivation of the soil will unfold to industry the certain road to competence. To those hardy Soldiers, who are actuated by the spirit of adventure the Fisheries will afford ample and profitable employment, and the extensive and fertile regions of the West will yield a most happy asylum to those, who, fond of domestic enjoyments are seeking for personal independence. Nor is it possible to conceive, that any one of the U States will prefer a national bankruptcy and a dissolution of the union, to a compliance with the requisitions of Congress and the payment of its just debts; so that the Officers and Soldiers may expect considerable assistance in recommencing their civil occupations from the sums due to them from the public, which must and will most inevitably be paid.”
Is it apparent to you that President Washington was not only acknowledging the debt but also politicking the States operating under the Articles of Confederation to pay their respective shares of that debt? Does that mean that the President and the Federal Government had no way to force the States to pay the debts to our first veterans? Clearly so, but our history also records the fact that the existence of the debt (our duty to our first veterans) was not eliminated by the fact that there was then no means of fulfillment.
Can we acknowledge, even without recounting the uneven 200-year history of the treatment of our veterans, that we all owe them an enormous debt for their service?
Perhaps because I lived though the period of the draft, I cannot think of any service we could perform that would give rise to the duty owed our veterans.