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I know a man who spends four or five weeks of every year in the army. He is a young man, but not all that young—fortysomething—and has a wife and four small children. He lives in Jerusalem. His annual five-week tour of service in the Israel Defense Force is called in Hebrew by a term that would be translated into English as “replacement” but is, not insignificantly, etymologically related to the word “fulfillment.” He will, like every man of sound mind and body in the country (except for the extremely religious), continue in this way to fulfill his obligation as a member of the reserve until he is fifty-four years old.

My Israeli friendhe happens also to be my son-in-law—is self-employed. This means that during the rest of the year he must somehow make up for the time lost or suffer a proportional decrease in his annual income. Were he a job-holder, it would be his employer who would one way or another be making the adjustment—or suffering the loss.

Perhaps these weeks are not completely lost time for him and his counterparts. For many Israeli men the time spent on reserve duty may possibly also constitute a time of fraternal reunion. Israeli children as a matter of policy remain with the same classmates from kindergarten through high school, and go into the army together and usually remain there together in the same unit (some experts ascribe the disproportionate military effectiveness of Israel’s army to this practice). Once they have completed their first three-year tour of duty, however, their lives as students and/or family men and providers may, in the normal way of these things, pull them apart, at least in a day-to-day sense. Thus returning to the army each year may represent for them something socially more enriching than the mere fulfillment of a legal obligation.

Still, there is no way that, for this Jerusalemite and all other Israeli husbands and fathers—along with students at university who miss their exams, and beginners in new jobs or careers who are one way and another bound to be set back—the burden of yearly, as I like to think of it, “fulfillment” is not at the least a nuisance and more often than not downright onerous. (And this, mind you, is in peacetime. In times of war, serious danger, not only for them but for their families “back home,” is added to the mix.)

But is the burden not lightened, emotionally and even in some cases economically, by the fact that every man in the country—again, except for the extremely orthodox, whose winning of a special exemption from military duty for their own children has done little to endear them to their countrymen—is required to take up his share of it? Indubitably the answer is yes. In each individual life, however, the load must inevitably be shouldered separately. And, of course, by the whole family.

I thought of my Jerusalemite on February 17, as I listened to President Clinton delivering his first major address to Congress. Among the many hopes, plans, and intentions set forth in the President’s speech, one of the more specific was a proposal to establish something going by the name of “national service.” In the space of time available to him, of course, Mr. Clinton could offer little more than a hasty outline of this proposal, but he did manage to make clear that what he was referring to was some sort of system whereby American high school (and, as it was to turn out, also college) graduates would exchange some years of service, either as policemen, environmental workers, or offerers of some form of assistance to poor children, in exchange for the government’s subsequently paying their college tuition—a kind of GI Bill for non-GIs.

Subsequently, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times on February 28, the President discussed the program at somewhat greater length. First, he said, some young people will be able to borrow the money they need for college and pay it back after graduation as a small percentage of their income over time. Second, other young people will be given the opportunity to “serve our country for a year or two” and then receive financial support for education or training in return. By 1997, he expects that more than 100,000 citizens will be serving their country, receiving education and training benefits in return, and hundreds of thousands more will be doing vital community work, able now to afford the time for such satisfactions because the need to repay their college loans will no longer “block their way.”

The services they will thus be freed to render? Teaching, tutoring, and mentoring in the schools; assisting to immunize two-year-olds in medical clinics; walking beats as policemen and keeping kids out of gangs; controlling pollution and recycling waste.

I thought of my Jerusalem friend because it came to me to wonder how such an idea of “national service” would strike him. He would no doubt be quite bewildered. Indeed, it would probably seem to him that taking a couple of years out of a life that has not yet reached full adulthood, spending them on a few of the nation’s lighter household chores, so to speak, and then being rather handsomely compensated for it would more accurately come under the heading of perk than of citizenly offering.

Not that he would be inclined to think of his annual forfeit of time and the comforts of home as some special kind of sacrifice. He wouldn’t. A nuisance, certainly, and now and then, depending on his schedule, worse than that: a bad break. But the real point is, he actually doesn’t think much about it at all. It is what he does, what everyone he knows does, because his country needs him to and expects him to. The word for this, I believe, is duty.

And duty is a word that has not yet crossed the lips of the President. Nor is it likely to. Nor is it to be found in most of the discussions about the virtue and value of public service for America’s young people, discussions that have been going on for some years now—for convenience call them “post-Vietnam”—among both liberals and conservatives.

The main impulse behind all this talk, of course, is a troubled feeling about the condition of the young, especially the young of the big-city ghettoes who have been making a great deal of trouble for themselves and others, but not about them alone. In any case, in whatever terms the argument is cast—that the trouble is the kids need some order and discipline, or need to raise their sights, or need to do something that matters, or are soft and spoiled—the notion of service is at bottom not something to be demanded from them but something to be done for them. It is in truth not about service at all. Quite the contrary; it is about psychic health, or vocational betterment, or, God help us, self-esteem.

Some years ago, for example, there was a flurry of debate about whether or not the country should return to a system of military conscription. A poll was taken (perhaps by Gallup, I no longer remember): an overwhelming percentage of the young men of draft age who were polled said they preferred not to be drafted. And not one party to the debate, nor one media commentator discussing the issue, seemed to notice that the word “draft” and the word “preference,” when used in the same sentence, bespeak a profound contradiction. This is a contradiction endemic to a society that—for whatever reason, and at least some of the reasons are probably lost in the mists of history—does not know how to ask anything of its children except that they manage somehow to behave as if their lives are pleasing to them.

Of course, any comparison with Israel is unfair. In the inculcation of a sense of duty, there is no moral equivalent to living under the kind of constant danger of attack that the Israelis do. Nor can those Americans who actually serve, whether in the army proper or in any enterprise connected to their country’s defense, have quite so immediate and close-quartered a connection as do Israel’s soldiers to the wives and children and parents and friends they are called upon to defend.

Still, it is impossible to believe that any form of public contribution that is secured in exchange for reward will, deep down in their souls, fool America’s young men into believing that they are truly shouldering their manly responsibilities. The works they perform might turn out to be helpful—though it would not be beyond the pale of reason to have one’s doubts about that—but the effect on them, which is after all the object of the exercise, will only be to reconfirm the message society has for so long and so damagingly been giving them. Actually it is Falstaff’s message:

What is honor? A word . . . .
Who hath it? He that died a’Wednesday.

Midge Decter is a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.