Several themes emerged from the conference at Chautauqua that surprised me … and should not have. At least two speakers, veterans, cited this oath as one of their motivations for enlisting. It was for them a solemn moment when they raised their hand and swore to defend the Constitution of the United States of America. But, they reminded us, one does not have to enlist to do this. Supporting and defending the Constitution is the right and responsibility of all Americans. It comes with citizenship.
We discussed this in the context of that vexed phrase “Thank you for your service.” The practice of reflexively thanking veterans or active duty military for their service is done by people who do not see themselves as serving their country themselves. More than that, we have all come to understand that word “service” as applying only to people in uniform, who go away, to foreign lands, to fight whoever we have decided is threatening our “freedoms.” But the post-9/11 veterans who spoke at Chautauqua recognize the underlying concept – that all of us, in myriad ways, have the opportunity and indeed the responsibility to support the Constitution and defend it “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
I spoke recently with a woman who had become an American citizen as an adult. She had more of an emotional connection to this year’s political campaigns than most people I know who were born here (and that’s saying something). She knew, deeply, why she felt the way she did because she had learned her rights and responsibilities at a time in her life when it made an impression on her. I remember civics classes when I was in school. We learned about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the way government is organized, and how individual freedom is maintained within a free nation. By the time my sister came through, seven years after me, she said her civics class consisted of a series of team-building exercises – not a bad thing, but not what immigrants learn and are tested on.
The post-9/11 veterans who came to Chautauqua spoke about the continuing devotion to service after they left the military. They take part in organizations that ‘deploy’ to disaster areas, they play a part in their local communities, they enter the political arena. They are not alone in this. Veterans of all military conflicts have done the same upon their return.
Long ago, I opposed the compulsory draft on the grounds that it was being misused by compelling young men to fight in a war they thought was wrong. Opposing the actions of government one disagrees with is, after all, not just a right, it is a responsibility. I may have been throwing the baby out with the bathwater then, and I don’t necessarily want that particular baby back. I still think compulsory military service is not the answer (having a standing army is a risky thing because it is so easily put to use) but I do support compulsory service to country. Our infrastructure needs to be rebuilt, and by that I don’t just mean roads and bridges. We need to undo the instruction that, while some of us went to war, the rest of us should go to the mall. Citizenship is far deeper, richer, and more exciting than that.