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What You Can Do for Your Country

By James Utt
By James Utt

Thanksgiving, as well Newport Beach, have felt the slings and arrows of this columnist. The new president, Dana Rohrabacher, and those that kill whales have come under scrutiny and ridicule as well. Now, new targets of opportunity need to be found. A couple present themselves. With advancing age comes wisdom and insight, or maybe just crankiness, but I would like to do the dance of ideas with Laguna High School seniors and libertarians.

High school seniors wait this time of year with bated breath to see if they have been accepted at the college of their choice. The angst, the sleepless nights. An end can be put to this suffering. Instead of sweating out the word from an admissions office, seniors should be thinking about which type of national service they will enter for the next one to two years. That’s right. I propose the United States enact a compulsory national service law for all graduating seniors or those who have dropped out and are now 18.

Citizenship is a balance between rights and responsibilities, and the pendulum in contemporary America has swung far too much in the direction of the former. Everyone demands their rights, but what do we owe in return for the vast array of freedoms we enjoy?

Take the military as an example. In 1975, 70 percent of members of Congress were veterans. Today, less than 20 percent are and only a tiny fraction of their children are in uniform. Less than half of one percent of Americans are in active military service. This minuscule group goes on tour after tour in dangerous lands while the rest of us stay safely at home. If a larger and broader cross section of Americans served in our armed forces, we might be more judicious when engaging in foreign adventures.

My national service bill would not require everyone to serve in the military. If you don’t want to be in uniform, no problem. There would be a number of options, all of which would fulfill your requirement. The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps VISTA come to mind. Existing charitable organizations could expand their base of operations. One might build homes for Habitat for Humanity, help maintain our national parks, or work in assisted living facilities. By the way, you would be paid for this work, just as those in the military would.

I can hear the libertarian’s cries of “involuntary servitude,” and “the government cannot force us to do these things.” Please. We compel our citizens to pay taxes, educate their kids, and report for jury duty. For the well being of others and our country, more needs to be asked from the people lucky enough to be Americans. Right now, we are a very divided nation. Graduates need to discover that we do have things in common with people outside of the privileged bubble of Laguna Beach. It would enrich our lives and make our nation stronger if we served together, worked together, and learned from each other.

Not long ago, General Stanley McChrystal said, “….I believe every young person deserves… the experience of being part of something larger than themselves.” National service would provide this opportunity.

Dear Laguna Beach High School seniors, I know many of you could make a seamless transition to a top level university and flourish. But having taught seniors for 35 years, I know all too well that many of you are not ready. Whether you are prepared or not to take what you see as your next step, I urge you to think about the good you could do for our nation and yourselves by devoting a year or two to serving our country. Please keep in mind the words that President Kennedy said that cold morning in 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Young people, you have a long life ahead of you. Don’t make the mistake of believing your life belongs exclusively to you.


James Utt served in the U.S. Army from 1971 to 1974. He is a better citizen because of that experience.

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  1. Great column! Another thought about seniors. Senior citizens could also serve. Create a sense of community. A win -win.

  2. I’ve been saying this for a while as well! It would be a great opportunity for people to look beyond their own bubbles. Even if it isn’t mandatory, we could also shift the culture to where employers or grad schools and colleges give a second look or an extra consideration to those who have served in AmeriCorp, Teach for America, Peace Corp, military etc.


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