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

America the Fearful

dad-001
My dad in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Oregon, c.1937

W.J. Astore

America.  Land of the free, home of the brave.  Right?  Peter Van Buren, who spent a career at the State Department, has a great new article at TomDispatch.com that highlights the way in which America has changed since the 9/11 attacks.  In sum: too many wars, too much security and surveillance, and far too much fear.  One passage in Van Buren’s article especially resonated with me:

Her [Van Buren’s daughter] adult life has been marked by constant war, so much so that “defeating the terrorists” is little more than a set phrase she rolls her eyes at. It’s a generational thing that’s too damn normal, like Depression-era kids still saving aluminum foil and paper bags in the basement after decades of prosperity.

Van Buren’s reference to Depression-era kids: Well, that was my dad. Born in 1917, he endured the Great Depression in a fatherless family. He really wasn’t certain where his next meal was coming from. Decades later, he still saved everything: plastic bags, twist ties, newspapers, old vacuums and toasters and other appliances (good for spare parts!), scrap wood, and so on. He wasn’t a hoarder per se; he just couldn’t throw away something that he might need if the times grew grim again.

My Dad would cook and eat broccoli rabe greens, then drink the green juice from the cooking. “Puts lead in your pencil,” he’d say.  When he ate corn on the cob, there was nothing left on the cob when he was through. He stripped it bare like those crows I watched as a kid on Saturday morning cartoons.

He came of age in a time of want and later served in an armored division in World War II. My dad’s generation knew, like FDR knew, that the only thing they truly had to fear was fear itself. He became hardened to it, but the Depression indelibly marked him as well.

How is today’s generation being marked?  Compared to the Great Depression, these are times of plenty.  Few Americans are starving.  The new normal for this generation is living in fear. Being surrounded by security guards and surveillance devices. Being immersed in celebrations of “patriotism” that involve steroidal flags and deadly military weaponry. Hearing about distant wars fought largely by the children of the working classes.

Looking overseas, they see an American foreign policy defined by perpetual war and an economy driven by perpetual weapons sales. Domestically, they see penury for social programs and profligacy for the national security state.

Is it any wonder that so many millennials seem detached or disenchanted or even defeated? They sense that America has changed, that the focus has shifted, that the American dream has darkened, that America the home of the brave has become the land of the fearful.

Fear is the mind-killer, to cite Frank Herbert.  My father’s generation knew this and overcame it.  Yet today our leaders and the media seek to generate and exploit fear. America has turned to the Dark Side, giving in to anger, fear, aggression.  Just look at our two major party candidates for the presidency.

Mister, we could use a man like FDR again.

“The Harder I Worked Physically, the Less Money I Made”: The Harsh Reality of Life in America

My father after being drafted in 1942
My father after being drafted in 1942

W.J. and J.A. Astore

My Dad, Julius Anthony Astore, was a child of the Great Depression.  Born in 1917, he had to quit high school in 1933 to help support his family.  In 1935 he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, working in forestry and as a firefighter in Oregon until he left in 1937.

Finding a job after he left the CCC was tough, but eventually Dad got one working at F.B. Washburn’s Candy Company during the Christmas rush.

Here’s how Dad described his job:

I was hired for a five week job starting at 6:00PM and my night shift would be over 6:00AM the next morning.  I would have Saturdays and Sundays off.  My work hours would add up to sixty hours a week and I would get twenty cents an hour.  Total twelve dollars a week.  Those days there wasn’t any time-and-a-half after forty hours.  It was quite a grind.  I had to sugar hard candy that was shaped like a small peach stone.  I won’t go into detail but it was a very tiring job.

From my life’s experience I’ve found that the harder I worked physically the less money I made.

Time goes by and I thought I was going to be laid off at the end of five weeks [but] I was put to work on the day shift permanently.  That was in 1938, four years before I was drafted into the Army and introduced to World War II.

At Washburn’s candy factory, Dad operated a lollipop machine, candy cookers, and he mixed sugar.  His starting salary was $9 a week (working forty-five hours).  By 1942 he was making $17 a week.  As with most factory jobs, the work was tedious, physically demanding, and unrewarding.  Writing ruefully to his brother Gino in 1938, and comparing factory work to his time spent in the CCC, Dad wrote “The CCCs are a helluva lot better than that place [Washburn’s].”

When Dad was drafted into the Army in February 1942, he took a major cut in salary.  From making roughly $70 a month at Washburn’s Candy Factory, his salary dropped to $21 a month as an Army private (which was still $9 less than what he had earned in the CCC in 1935!).  When he was discharged from the Army in January 1946 as a corporal technician, he was finally making what he had earned at Washburn’s, about $69 a month.

Although it’s true that the American soldier was paid better than his British counterpart, it’s still shocking to hear that U.S. privates were fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific for less than $30 a month basic pay.

The truth is simply this: Even the richest, most prosperous country in the world grossly underpaid its frontline troops.  While contractors got rich on the homefront, never risking a hair on their precious necks, young Americans fought and died for peanuts.

Hasn’t it always been this way?  Today, Americans are uncomfortable calling attention to pay discrepancies and exploitation because it smacks of Marxism and class warfare.  Yes, some of the worst abuses of workers have been curbed since my Dad suffered through the Great Depression, but today’s workers are simply scared: scared that their jobs will be outsourced, scared that they’ll be “downsized” (i.e., fired); scared that they’ll be replaced by robots.  Thus they put up and shut up.

For all the rhetoric about the dignity of work in the USA, Dad’s words still ring true: so-called unskilled labor, or demanding physical work, is still undervalued and disrespected in our country.  And for all the talk of “supporting our troops,” those young men and women sent into harm’s way are still paid little when you consider they’re risking their necks.

Which makes me think of another one of my Dad’s sayings: “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”  Especially if we don’t work to change them.

Remembering the Quiet, Unsung Heroes of America

My Mom and Dad
My Mom and Dad

W.J. Astore

On this Super Bowl Sunday of 2014, doubtless we’ll be hearing about the “heroes” of the gridiron.  Whichever team wins will have its “heroes” (Peyton Manning, perhaps?).  Meanwhile, remote feeds will show various military units watching the Big Game, and doubtless these troops will be touted as American heroes.  (They’re indisputably a tad more heroic than a multi-millionaire quarterback who shills everything from pizza to cars.)

But who are the real heroes of America?  I tackled this question on Memorial Day 2011 at Truthout.  For me, it’s loving, hard-working, self-sacrificing people like my parents.  I recall learning in Catholic catechism class that love is all about selfless giving — giving of yourself, freely and generously, without expecting anything in return.  That is assuredly one characteristic of a “hero.”

Here is what I wrote back in 2011.  My thanks to Truthout for publishing it back then.

This Memorial Day [2011], let’s remember and learn from our heroes who are gone from us. For me, my heroes are my parents, both of whom grew up in single-parent families during the Great Depression. Let’s start with my Mom. Our concept of “hero” today often works against moms; our culture tends to glorify our troops and other people of action: police, firefighters, and other risk-takers who help others. But to me my Mom was a hero. As a young woman, she worked long hours in a factory to help support her mother. She married at twenty-seven and quickly had four children in five years (I came along a few years later, the beneficiary of the “rhythm method” of Catholic birth control). As a full-time homemaker, she raised five children in a working-class neighborhood while struggling with intense family issues (an older son, my brother, struggled with schizophrenia, a mental disease little understood in the early 1970s).

Despite these burdens and more, my Mom was always upbeat and giving: traits that didn’t change even when she was diagnosed with cancer. She struggled against the ravages of that disease for five long years before succumbing to it in 1980. Cancer took her life but not her spirit. I never heard her once complain about the painful chemotherapy and cobalt treatments she endured.

My father too had a difficult life. He had to quit high school after the tenth grade and find a paying job to support the family. At the age of eighteen, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps and fought forest fires in Oregon; factory work followed (where he met my Mom) until that was interrupted by the draft and service in the Army during World War II. After more factory work in the latter half of the 1940s, my Dad got on the local firefighting force, serving with distinction for more than thirty years until his retirement. He died in 2003 after a heart attack and surgery, from which he never fully recovered.

America’s heroes are women and men like my Mom and Dad: the factory workers, the homemakers, the blue-collar doers and givers. And as I think about my Mom and Dad, I recall both their loving natures and their toughness. They had few illusions, and they knew how to get a tough job done, without complaint.

There’s so much we can learn from women and men like them. Personally, I’m so sick of our media and our government telling us how scared we should be — whether of violent crime or violent tornadoes or bogeyman terrorists overseas. My parents recognized the hard-won wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

But today our government prefers to abridge our rights (see the latest extension of the so-called Patriot Act) in the name of keeping us safe and less fearful, a bargain for those who exercise power, but not for tough-minded people working hard to scrape a living for their children (thanks again, Mom and Dad).

My parents weren’t worried about threats emerging from left field. They had real — and much more immediate — challenges to deal with right at home. In this spirit, I still recall my Dad talking somewhat heretically about the Cold War and the Soviet threat. His opinion: if the Americans and Soviets are stupid enough to nuke one another, a billion Chinese will pick up the slack of human civilization. No bomb shelters or ducking and covering for him. It was back to work to support the family by putting out fires in our neck of the woods.

And that’s what we need to do today as a country. We need to put fear aside and band together to put out fires in our neck of the woods. Together we can make a better country. In so doing, we’ll honor the heroic sacrifices of our families and ancestors: people like my Mom and Dad.

God bless you, Mom, Dad, and all the other quiet and unsung heroes of America.