Bring Back National Service

Dad in Oregon
My dad (2nd from left) in Oregon with some of the “fellows,” c.1937

With fires raging in California and Oregon, and with unemployment rates high, I recalled the experiences of my dad, which I wrote about twelve years ago for TomDispatch.com.  My dad served in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), mainly fighting forest fires in Oregon.  The CCC was one of those alphabet soup agencies created by FDR’s administration to put people back to work while paying them a meaningful wage.  You might call it “democratic socialism,” but I prefer to call it common sense and applaud its spirit of service to country.

We need to revive national service while deemphasizing its military aspects.  There are all sorts of honorable services one can render to one’s fellow citizens, as my father’s example shows from the 1930s, an era that now seems almost biblical in its remoteness from today’s concerns.

Hey, Government! How About Calling on Us?
Reviving National Service in a Big Way
By William J. Astore

Lately, our news has focused on tropical depressions maturing into monster hurricanes that leave devastation in their wake — and I’m not just talking about Gustav and Ike. Today, we face a perfect storm of financial devastation, notable for the enormity of the greed that generated it and the somnolent response of our government in helping Americans left devastated in its wake.

As unemployment rates soar to their highest level in five years and home construction sinks to its lowest level in 17 years, all our federal government seems able to do is buy up to $700 billion in “distressed” mortgage-related assets, bail-out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (at a cost of roughly $200 billion) or “loan” $85 billion to liquidate insurance giant AIG. If you’re Merrill Lynch, you get a hearing; if you’re just plain Marilyn Lynch of Topeka, what you get is a recession, a looming depression, and a federal tax bill for the fat-cat bail-outs.

But, amazingly enough, ordinary Americans generally don’t want bail-outs, nor do they want handouts. What they normally want is honorable work, decent wages, and a government willing to wake up and help them contribute to a national restoration.

How America Was Once Rebuilt

Before surging ahead, however, let’s look back. Seventy-five years ago, our country faced an even deeper depression. Millions of men had neither jobs, nor job prospects. Families were struggling to put food on the table. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt acted. He created the Civilian Conservation Corps, soon widely known as the CCC.

From 1933 to 1942, the CCC enrolled nearly 3.5 million men in roughly 4,500 camps across the country. It helped to build roads, build and repair bridges, clear brush and fight forest fires, create state parks and recreational areas, and otherwise develop and improve our nation’s infrastructure — work no less desperately needed today than it was back then. These young men — women were not included — willingly lived in primitive camps and barracks, sacrificing to support their families who were hurting back home.

My father, who served in the CCC from 1935 to 1937, was among those young men. They earned $30 a month for their labor — a dollar a day — and he sent home $25 of that to support the family. For those modest wages, he and others like him gave liberally to our country in return. The stats are still impressive: 800 state parks developed; 125,000 miles of road built; more than two billion trees planted; 972 million fish stocked. The list goes on and on in jaw-dropping detail.

Not only did the CCC improve our country physically, you might even say that experiencing it prepared a significant part of the “greatest generation” of World War II for greatness. After all, veterans of the CCC had already learned to work and sacrifice for something larger than themselves — for, in fact, their families, their state, their country. As important as the G.I. Bill was to veterans returning from that war and to our country’s economic boom in the 1950s, the CCC was certainly no less important in building character and instilling an ethic of teamwork, service, and sacrifice in a generation of American men.

Today, we desperately need to tap a similar ethic of service to country. The parlous health of our communities, our rickety infrastructure, and our increasingly rickety country demands nothing less.

Of course, I’m hardly alone in suggesting the importance of national service. Last year, in Time Magazine, for example, Richard Stengel called for a revival of national service and urged the formation of a “Green Corps,” analogous to the CCC, and dedicated to the rejuvenation of our national infrastructure.

To mark the seventh anniversary of 9/11, John McCain and Barack Obama recently spoke in glowing terms of national service at a forum hosted by Columbia University. Both men expressed support for increased governmental spending, with McCain promising that, as president, he would sign into law the Kennedy-Hatch “Serve America Act,” which would, among other things, triple the size of the AmeriCorps. (Of course, McCain had just come from a Republican convention that had again and again mocked Obama’s time as a “community organizer” and, even at Columbia, he expressed a preference for faith-based organizations and the private sector over service programs run by the government.) Obama has made national service a pillar of his campaign, promising to spend $3.5 billion annually to more than triple the size of AmeriCorps, while also doubling the size of the Peace Corps.

It all sounds impressive. But is it? Compared to the roughly $900 billion being spent in FY2009 on national defense, homeland security, intelligence, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $3.5 billion seems like chump change, not a major investment in national service or in Americans. When you consider the problems facing American workers and our country, both McCain and Obama are remarkable in their timidity. Now is surely not the time to tinker with the controls on a ship of state that’s listing dangerously to starboard.

Do I overstate? Here are just two data points. Last month our national unemployment rate rose to 6.1%, a five-year high. This year alone, we’ve shed more than 600,000 jobs in eight months. If you include the so-called marginally attached jobless, 11 million Americans are currently out of work, which adds up to a real unemployment rate of 7.1%. Now, that doesn’t begin to compare to the unemployment rate during the Great Depression which, at times, exceeded 20%. In absolute terms, however, 11 million unemployed American workers represent an enormous waste of human potential.

How can we get people off the jobless rolls, while offering them useful tasks that will help support families, while building character, community, and country?

Here’s where our federal government really should step in, just as it did in 1933. For we face an enormous national challenge today which goes largely unaddressed: shoring up our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The prestigious American Society of Civil Engineers did a survey of, and a report card on, the state of the American infrastructure. Our country’s backbone earned a dismal “D,” barely above a failing (and fatal) grade. The Society estimates that we need to invest $1.6 trillion in infrastructure maintenance and improvements over the next five years or face ever more collapsing bridges and bursting dams. It’s a staggering sum, until you realize that we’re already approaching a trillion dollars spent on the Iraq war alone.

No less pressing than a trillion-dollar investment in our nation’s physical health is a commensurate investment in the emotional and civic well-being of our country — not just the drop-in-the-bucket amounts both Obama and McCain are talking about, but something commensurate with the task ahead of us. As our president dithers, even refusing to use the “R” word of recession, The Wall Street Journal quotes Mark Gertler, a New York University economist, simply stating this is “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

The best and fairest way to head off that crisis is not simply to spend untold scores of billions of taxpayer dollars rescuing (or even liquidating) recklessly speculative outfits that gave no thought to ordinary workers while they were living large. Rather, our government should invest scores of billions in empowering the ordinary American worker, particularly those who have suffered the most from the economic ravages of our financial hurricane.

Just as in 1933, a call today to serve our country and strengthen its infrastructure would serve to reenergize a shared sense of commitment to America. Such service would touch millions of Americans in powerful ways that can’t be fully predicted in advance, just as it touched my father as a young man.

What “Ordinary” Americans Are Capable Of

My father was a self-confessed “regular guy,” and his CCC service was typical. He was a “woodsman-falling,” a somewhat droll job title perhaps, but one that concealed considerable danger. In the fall of 1936, he fought the Bandon forest fire in Oregon, a huge conflagration that burned 100,000 acres and killed a dozen people. To corral and contain that fire, he and the other “fellows” in his company worked on the fire lines for five straight weeks. At one point, my father worked 22 hours straight, in part because the fire raged so fiercely and so close to him that he was too scared to sleep (as he admitted to me long after).

My father was 19 when he fought that fire. Previously, he had been a newspaper boy and had after the tenth grade quit high school to support the family. Still, nothing marked him as a man who would risk his own life to save the lives of others, but his country gave him an opportunity to serve and prove himself, and he did.

Before joining the CCC, my father had been a city boy, but in the Oregon woods he discovered a new world of great wonder. It enriched his life, just as his recollections of it enrich my own:

“Thunder and lightning are very dangerous in the forest. Well, one stormy night a Forest Ranger smoke chaser got a call from the fire tower. They spotted a small night fire; getting the location the Ranger took me and another CCC boy to check it out. After walking about a mile in the woods we spotted the fire. It had burned a circle of fire at least 100 yards in diameter from the impact of the lightning bolt.

“You never saw anything so beautiful. The trees were all lit in fire; the fire on the ground was lit up in hot coals. Also fiery embers were falling off the trees. Some of the trees were dried dead snags. It looked like the New York skyline lit up at night. The Ranger radioed back for a fire crew. Meanwhile the three of us started to contain the fire with a fire trail.

“Later, we got caught in a thunderstorm in the mountains. We stretched a tarpaulin to protect ourselves from the downpours. You could see the storm clouds, with thunder and lightning flashing, approaching and passing over us. Then the torrents of rain. It would stop and clear with stars shining. And sure enough it must have repeated the sequence at least five times. What a night.”

Jump ahead to 2008 and picture a nineteen-year-old high school dropout. Do you see a self-centered slacker, someone too preoccupied exercising his thumbs on video games, or advertising himself on MySpace and Facebook, to do much of anything to help anyone other than himself?

Sure, there are a few of these. Aren’t there always? But many more young Americans already serve or volunteer in some capacity. Even our imaginary slacker may just need an opportunity — and a little push — to prove his mettle. We’ll never know unless our leaders put our money where, at present, only their mouths are.

Remaking National Service — And Our Country

Today, when most people think of national service, they think of military service. As a retired military officer, I’m hardly one to discount the importance of such service, but we need to extend the notion of service beyond the military, beyond national defense, to embrace all dimensions of civic life. Imagine if such service was as much the norm as in the 1930s, rather than the exception, and imagine if our government was no longer seen as the problem, but the progenitor of opportunity and solutions?

Some will say it can no longer be done. Much like Rudy Giuliani, they’ll poke fun at the whole idea of service, and paint the government as dangerously corrupt, or wasteful, or even as the enemy of the people — perhaps because they’re part of that same government.

How sad. We don’t need jaded “insiders” or callow “outsiders” in Washington; what we need are doers and dreamers. We need leaders with faith both in the people — the common worker with uncommon spirit — and the government to inspire and get things done.

The unselfish idealism, work ethic, and public service of the CCC could be tapped again, if only our government remembers that our greatest national resource is not exhaustible commodities like oil or natural gas, but the inexhaustible spirit and generosity of the American worker.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He now teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005), among other works. He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.

Copyright 2008 William Astore

16 thoughts on “Bring Back National Service

  1. Here, Here! I say for whatever Anniversary it will be next Year for the CCC’s. –do it! it’s an idea that has Merit. Too bad the “System” nowadays win’t allow it tho. I’m sure they would enjoy their Jobs tho. just like I enjoyed my years of Service as a City Firefighter, and Serviceman also in the Air Force. Us Old timers can even tell these Kids of a past when people were not afraid… And…, of a future where people can really feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves Because these Wildfires are so devastating on so many levels…I sometimes wonder what that generation if they were still here would think of how insane ours is becoming..?

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  2. Sabino Canyon Road in Tucson was built by the CCC. It is one of the most highly popular spots in the city as a summer “getaway” all year, especially in summer. The road was initially intended to connect with Mount Lemon highway, until it was realized that the final grades would be too steep for realistic travel. The CCC finished it off with picnic spots and left it as a scenic tourist spot. There are many hand built bridges across the creek, all of which were built by the CCC and remain in excellent condition to this day.

    My father was commander of one of the CCC camps in Arizona, farther north in the White Mountains, before I was born. He was newly married at the time, and his young wife (my mother to be, of course) lived in a tent near the site.

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    1. I went up into Sabino Canyon many times on my motorcycle while attending the UofA in the early 70’s. I haven’t been there in decades but from what I hear it has been highly modified to handle lots and lots of people since I knew it with few improvements over the CCC work. I didn’t know of the original plan to connect to the Hitchcock Highway.

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  3. I have been yelling this mantra since the end of the Vietnam War. Four years of mandatory service for all Americans right after high school or perhaps right after college will teach generations at least one thing they they do not want to do ever again. They will be far better for that experience and the nation will be far better also in a variety of ways.

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    1. Depending on the service, I’d suggest 1-2 years, expandable to four. No exemptions for college or asthma (Biden) or heel spurs (Trump) or other mostly make-believe issues. (Trump played baseball with those spurs; Biden played football with asthma; both found they just couldn’t serve in the military, however.)

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  4. I have stated my view in the past–which would probably shock some of my anti-war veteran compadres–that I would be “okay” with mandatory National Service. Two years only, though. You don’t wanna delay the start of college by four years. AND “my” plan, of course, would have “just a few” strings attached: the system would NOT steer people involuntarily into the military, and the military would have to be reined in. Which pretty well sinks the whole concept out of the starting gate, to be realistic. But there’s a much, much bigger obstacle: Imagine the HOWLS OF PROTEST from a large chunk of the populace who would scream “THIS IS COMMUNISM!!”; “I thought this was a free country!”; etc. Truth be told, many nations DO have mandatory national service for young people. But, you know, USA is “the Exceptional Nation”!

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  5. Oh, and BTW, where is the active-duty military? I imagine some National Guard units have been mobilized to fight these dreadful fires out West, but why isn’t the active military on the job in this huge crisis? Hello, Mr. Commander-in-Chief? Anybody home??

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  6. One of my uncles was in the CCC. I tried to find out where he worked but wasn’t successful. National and state parks are still full of CCC stonework.

    Speaking of being like the military, why is it that the police are modeled on the military? The police should in no way be considered a combat force.

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    1. I think you’ll find that cops’ attitudes started altering (or being altered by their commanders) in the wake of the events of 9/11. Suddenly anyone in uniform was “a hero” and we had to “defend the homeland.” Never mind that no act of terrorism remotely resembling the scale of those attacks has materialized in the intervening nearly two decades. Then Dick Cheney ordered Dubya to order the war against Iraq and “the Warrior Ethos” was unleashed on the citizenry, reinforced to this day with ’round-the-clock jingoistic propaganda. And the military-grade weaponry and armored personnel carriers started to flow to police departments from coast to coast. The Obama administration continued this policy in the wake of Bush’s. Looking at the biggest picture possible, World Capitalism is approaching a major crisis. It is deeply in debt, and living day to day on borrowed funds (resources borrowed from humanity’s future, really). The future looks bleaker with each passing day for the “underclass” and that class is sensing it more and more. To keep that class “in its place,” the apparatus of repression has been beefed up and we should not be surprised at how vigorously the Powers That Be unleash it in the near future.

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  7. Yes, that’s true. Police should be about protecting and serving. Public servants, not warriors. But the “thin blue line” mentality is growing — and that’s not a good thing.

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  8. Given the enormous “Defense” budget if half of it was directed to a new CCC, imagine what we might have. I am sure Pastor Pence and his ilk, would want it to be “Faith Based” start the work day with pruuuyyer (prayer), the Pledge of Allegiance, National Anthem, etc. The Democrats so as not to offend the bible thumper’s and flag waving patriots would go along with it.

    Might have some heated discussions concerning the volunteers being able to bring their firearms and open carry them.

    Then we could let the Crony-Capitalists in to some how skim off the top. The budget would call for a 20 mile walking trail. Five miles would be built and it would wash out in two years.

    Am a cynic???????

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    1. There’s some cynicism there!

      You’re right, though. This is not the 1930s. Society today is much, much, different.

      My dad was used to hardship and penury, and he freely sacrificed for his family. He wasn’t exceptional then. But I’m thinking he’d truly be exceptional in these times.

      Also, FDR and Democrats back then had guts; they knew what they believed in. Today’s party has been bought off.

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    2. Yes, I detect a hint of cynicism here! But you forgot, we were discussing mandatory national service, so the personnel would only be volunteers if they selected fighting forest fires, say, as their area of contributing. Assuming they were given such options. You know what? I could live with the prayer sessions if they (the workers, not the prayers!) got the job done, ‘cuz it really is crying out for attention! Last I heard, The Donald planned to do a fly-over of the western disaster Monday. Yep, that’ll do a lot of good! The wash from the chopper blades will just fan the flames some more, I imagine.

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  9. You know what, instead of having prisoners working as firefighters with no pay, no protection, no future prospect, why doesn’t America just reorganize and remobilize the CCC? It is for the good of all parties involved!? But no! The American leadership just want their system to be as cruel and exploitative as possible.

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    1. If private corporations (other than “correctional” facilities) could turn a neat profit doing this kind of work, I think the problem would be resolved. “The American leadership” in general is (conveniently) spectacularly shortsighted about the collapse of the planet’s ecosphere. (Scientists just released an estimate that 2/3–TWO-THIRDS–of all wildlife has been exterminated in past 50 years.) “Profit Before Planet” should be their motto. THIS particular pathetic excuse for “leadership” we’re stuck with for at least several more months is, indeed, intentionally cruel. We have the worst of Nero AND Caligula rolled up in one neat, U-G-L-Y package!

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