Today is the 93rd anniversary of the end of the Great War--Veteran's Day.
This is a holiday to honor the men and women who have fought in this country's wars and to thank them for their service.
Last year the wife of one of my colleagues died. I read in her obituary that she had been known to pay the bill for men and women in uniform if she saw them out eating at a restaurant. She did this, the obit claimed, because she loved her country. Having known the lady myself I can attest that she did it because she was an absolute sweetheart, but since reading that I have spent some time thinking about what it means to love your country or to be called to national service.
First--I personally could never be part of the armed forces because I can't be part of an organization who's goal is to kill people. Yes, I know, the army doesn't just kill people. The Corp of Engineers builds bridges and the organization as a whole can do good for the Americans who serve in it by paying for their college educations, teaching them useful skills and, in the case of career service people, giving them comrades and, well, a chance to be all that they can be.
However, I don't think that the armed forces should have a monopoly on serving their country or doing what they do because they love their country. Teachers serve their country by educating people. Doctors and nurses (and nurse's aids, social workers, radiation techs, etc.) in public hospitals serve their country. Civil engineers serve their country by designing bridges that won't fall down.
Before you ask--I am not at all about to imply that everyone serves his or her country professionally (I certainly don't) or even that everyone on the federal payroll serves his or her country (politicians and capitol hill pages? I don't think so.) I am simply trying to point out that we aught to broaden the definition of "serving your country."
It is true that the reason we thank our men and women in uniform differently than we thank our high school history teachers is that history teachers are not often shot at, nor do we require them to shoot at other people. We don't require them to leave their families for long tours of duty either. On the other hand we don't compensate them particularly well either.
I am not suggesting that we change the name of this holiday to People Who Were Willing to Be Shot at To Advance American Foreign Policy Goals Day. I am simply suggesting that we think hard about the nature of service (doing something because it needs to be done, for the benefit of the many--not because it would be profitable to do so.)
Furthermore, I have long wished that there was a way to do national service that didn't involve joining the army. Many countries have a requirement that all people server in the army for one year after college. I think that's a great idea--except for the "army" bit. All people should be required to serve their country for one year. This service should take many forms--if you're a cook you can cook for the country for a year, if you're a geek you can update government websites and answer tech support questions for IRS.gov (heh heh heh).
Everyone should be required at some time during their year of national service to do unskilled labor--whether it's heavy lifting or peeling potatoes. Everyone should be required to do what they do best--whether it's fixing cars or giving financial advice as well. In this way everyone will have done their part to cut down on the unpleasant chores that need to be done to keep the world spinning and everyone will have had a chance to do what they do best in the service of their country.
I admit that this is impractical and unlikely. It might even cost a country more to maintain such a program than the country would gain through its application. It's just something I've been thinking about for a while.