Retired General Stanley McChrystal said something on Face the Nation last week which, perhaps, is worth thinking about.
Asked by Bob Schieffer whether we needed a military draft, McChrystal suggested that we did need all young people to do some sort of national service—not necessarily military.
One of his reasons—and this is what caught my attention—was “we’re also a nation which doesn’t get to know each other well. Someone from one part of an inner city never meets someone from an upper class neighborhood.”
It occurs to me in the context of the ongoing debate about gun violence, parenting, video games, media, etc. that he’s right. I can make a no-cost phone call to London with something I carry in my pocket, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d have to ask my wife what our neighbor’s phone number (or last name) is.
At age 60, looking back on when I was growing up, I participated in activities—as did most of my contemporaries—which made those introductions from neighborhood to neighborhood and socio-economic group to socio-economic group. It started in the Cub Scouts, continued in the Boy Scouts and, for me, went on to the Civil Air Patrol and then to college. My sisters were all Brownies and Girl Scouts and had much the same experience.
By the time I finished my freshman year at Southern Illinois University, I had indeed met folks from just about every kind of neighborhood (and some of those people are still friends today.) I didn’t need a class in diversity because I lived it, growing up.
You would think, given the fact that we all carry Star Trek-style personal communicators these days, which are all capable of talking to anyone, anywhere, anytime that we would communicate with each other.
McChrystal is right. We don’t.
When I was growing up, we lived in a subdivision. Everybody knew each other. The parents knew who their children were playing with. When somebody new moved into the neighborhood, there was an immediate procession of neighbors to the door of the new folks, introducing themselves.
My late father and my late favorite uncle were known family-wide for talking to anybody about anything almost any place. My uncle would drive the streets of New York with his windows down so he could start a conversation at red lights and in traffic jams.
Today, these conversations may be carried on by email and text message; but how many face-to-face interactions between people—neighbors even—are there as opposed to back in the 60s and 70s?
It’s a lot easier to do violence to people you don’t have any clue exist in the non-electronic world. A whack job who communicates with no one gets a gun and kills 20 first graders, and we blame the gun?
Here are some interesting statistics from the Boy Scouts of America:
The number of Scouts nationally was at its peak in the early 1970s, with about 6.5 million. The number of all Scouts as of the end of 2010 was down to about 2.7 million, according to the BSA website.
It’s probably fair to assume that the same sort of declines exist in other youth-oriented groups.
That means that not nearly as many young people are meeting each other in the kind of environment that fosters lifetime relationships between kids of all sorts. For whatever the reason, meeting all kinds of people is no longer cool these days.
Maybe some sort of mandatory national service—military or otherwise—is an, if not the, answer.
Today’s society is a wonderful place for people who don’t like people. You can communicate all you want without ever actually having to meet anyone. You can have virtual friends who may or may not actually exist.
Maybe the only way to get people to know other people in today’s society is through some sort of national service which, at least, would have the additional benefit of binding the people to the nation they live in, as McChrystal suggested.
I’m not wild about the idea of allowing the government to become an extended babysitter, but I sure can see the benefits of extending military or civilian service to everybody between the ages of 18 and 20.
At the very least, it might give people from red states and blue states something in common.
And if we’re about to have a “national conversation” about violence, this certainly deserves to be part of the debate.