America Needs a National Service Draft Now to Fight the Coronavirus

Nations have always mobilized young people when facing existential crises like war. The case for national service has never been clearer.

A World War II-era postcard.
A World War II-era postcard. Rykoff Collection/CORBIS via Getty Images

My son, Liam, turned 18 in March, just as schools and universities were closing and stay-at-home orders began proliferating. On the day U.S. President Donald Trump declared war on the coronavirus, we received Liam’s selective service card in the mail. Were this a real war, Liam and his friends could have been called up to go off and risk their lives. Instead, he and millions of high school seniors and college students had just been instructed, by political leaders, school authorities, and the media, to do their part to beat this virus—by staying home. As a popular Facebook meme read: “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on your couch. You can do this.”

But why isn’t compulsory service on the menu of policy options right now? The United Nations refers to this pandemic as the gravest threat since World War II.
In a military crisis of this magnitude, young men have in the past been called up and trained virtually overnight to perform numerous skilled jobs in the armed forces or in the civil service. Young women have been mobilized as well—into the military, the medical corps, or factory work. But today many talented, civic-minded young adults are earnestly doing the only thing being asked of them: sitting at home feeling isolated, anxious, and (quite understandably) slighted.

Instead, imagine that the selective service called up members of the age group least vulnerable to a severe course of—let alone death from—COVID-19 and drafted them not to join the military but to perform paid civilian service.

As in the military, young people between 18 and 20 years of age could be trained quickly and intensively for essential service work based on skills, aptitude, and need—with all the necessary and well-studied safety precautions that vastly reduce any risk of infection, both to young people themselves and to those with whom they come in contact.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Some draftees could be trained as nursing assistants and emergency medical technicians, like those grossly overworked first responders driving ambulances or providing support work where patients are treated. Some could be put to work by the Army Corps of Engineers and help build new hospitals. Some could staff food banks and other civil society organizations to support vulnerable families hit by the downturn so that older, more at-risk volunteers could stay safely at home. Some could fill in on converted or makeshift factory assembly lines to rapidly build masks and ventilators—just like young people were mobilized to build munitions in the past. Some could help on farms, where a lack of labor risks shortages of certain foods. Many would receive special training to be safely put to work sanitizing, cleaning, and clearing.

I can hear the objections already: In a pandemic, wouldn’t such compulsory service create just another form of cannon fodder?I can hear the objections already: In a pandemic, wouldn’t such compulsory service create just another form of cannon fodder, forcing young people to risk their lives on behalf of their elders? But most essential workers today are already at far higher risk of complications in case of infection than members of this age group, whose risk of dying from the coronavirus is close to zero. What residual risk remains (only 0.04 percent of confirmed cases among 10- to 19-year-olds require hospitalization, and even that percentage overstates the risk since few asymptomatic or mild cases have been diagnosed) is far smaller than for many things young people usually do, including driving cars or drinking alcohol. Even if the risk were significant, haven’t young people been asked to risk their lives—and done so willingly—in every major war Americans have ever fought? It makes infinitely more sense than demanding vulnerable retirement-age workers come back to work in hospitals—the exact people likeliest to fall prey to COVID-19.

The military could already do many of these jobs and will try. Members of the National Guard have been called up, the Army Corps of Engineers has been mobilized, and U.S. Navy hospital ships are being deployed. But this may not be sufficient for the job at hand nor sustainable. Even before this crisis, the U.S. military was strapped for recruits. And the armed forces are needed elsewhere, perhaps more so as military tensions are predictably sparked or exacerbated by the pandemic.

A civilian force on the homefront would not only take pressure off the military but imbue worried young people with a sense of purpose, shared experience, marketable skills, and an antidote to helplessness—in much the same way as wartime military service forged earlier generations.

There is a social justice dimension as well. Many low-income young people are already serving as essential workers, primarily in food services. That others in this age group can sit out the pandemic at home, protected from the world by their parents, reflects the same class inequalities that place the burden of defending the country on low-income and minority communities. By contrast, compulsory national service would distribute responsibility to serve more equitably across society’s least at-risk group. At the same time, it would provide employment and job training to young adults—the same demographic whose jobs in nonessential sectors have been hit hardest by the economic shutdown.

The risk to young people is low and manageable with the right precautions. What about those with whom they come in contact? Again, the same problem exists for all essential workers now, many of whom are working overtime. And these risks can be mitigated with careful logistical planning and appropriate training. The far bigger problem is that vulnerable older essential workers are increasingly falling ill, creating staff shortages while contributing to the medical burden. Putting young people to work could help with these labor shortfalls, prevent medical overload, and allow more vulnerable people to stay home.

The debate over civilian service isn’t new, but never have the merits been so clear. Former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg made a year of mandatory service for all U.S. citizens after age 18 a part of his platform. He argued that national service could lead young people from widespread anger, anxiety, and nihilism toward collective action and community service. Many countries already have such programs, where youth are required by law to perform a year or more of service before entering college or the job force, often a choice between community service and the military in countries such as Austria and Norway. Other countries that have abolished national service, such as Germany, are discussing bringing it back.

A civilian service draft is at least as reasonable today as a military one was for our grandfathers. The risks from this pandemic are greater than from any war the United States might imagine fighting. The number of confirmed cases in the United States is already more than half the total number of Americans killed in combat in all U.S. wars put together. Already in the past few weeks, the coronavirus has become a leading cause of death, behind only heart disease and cancer in the United States. Never before has the call to contribute to one’s country been more urgent, the danger clearer or more present, and the cost-benefit analysis so easy.

This brings us to political will and leadership. Despite Trump’s declaration that he is now a “wartime president,” he has yet to begin treating this crisis as a national security problem. But at a time of clear emergency, national service could be an easier political sell than many think. On March 25, Trump’s National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service released its final report, proposing a radically expanded volunteer service corps. There is significant popular support: A 2017 Gallup poll showed that half of Americans would favor some form of mandatory national service.A 2017 Gallup poll showed that half of Americans would favor some form of mandatory national service.

What about young people themselves? The same Gallup poll showed that young Americans were the least likely of any age group to support national service. Today, many are already resentful at school closures and the social cost of stay-at-home orders. Some may chafe at being asked to take on risk even as they feel they’ve been left in the lurch by older generations—on the cost of education, on health care, on housing affordability.

But that only proves the point that service may need to be mandatory, not voluntary, and distributed by lottery in order to allocate the burden equally. The U.S. government should pay and train young citizens well, mitigate their risks in every way possible, offer them additional benefits on completion of their service, and honor them as heroes the same way we honor young people who fight in war. There are increasingly urgent and convincing reasons to enlist the energy, talents, and very low vulnerability of the young now in the fight against the pandemic. A national civilian service would help win this fight, protect the vulnerable, and provide a lasting service to society that goes far beyond the current emergency.

Perhaps more importantly, it could empower young people to address their generation’s own goals, which for my son Liam and many in his age group is action to mitigate climate change. As Jamie Margolin, an 18-year-old climate activist, wrote in the Washington Post “My generation is giving up our youth—our schooling, our fun and our freedom—so that you can see next year. When this is over, you may have to keep giving something up so that we can see the next century.” If young people saved the day right now, there would be no stopping them in the years to come.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Twitter: @charlicarpenter

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