Reflections on What We

Owe to Our Country

By William F. Buckley Jr.

Random House. 169 pp. $16.95

GOD BLESS Bill Buckley for choosing this moment to publish a book in favor of national service. There could be no better antidote to the selfishness of the '70s and '80s than to ask citizens to recognize an obligation to their country that goes beyond voting and paying taxes to include giving a portion of their lives to helping others.

Not only is the time right, so is the messenger. For national service to be advocated by a conservative like Buckley is especially important because it is conservatives who have been the major opponents of the idea in the past. Buckley's role is in this respect analogous to the part another conservative, Kevin Phillips, has played in helping awaken the country to the need to correct the dramatic tilt in favor of the affluent and against the rest of us that occurred during the Reagan era.

Why do conservatives resist national service? Listen to one of them, Martin Anderson of the Hoover Institution:

"The basic thrust {of those who advocate national service} is that all the dirty, distasteful work in any society should be shared equally {emphasis Anderson's} by all the people who live in the society. No exception, woman or man, rich or poor, skillful or not, every single soul must do his or her share of taking out the garbage, preparing the dead for burial, cleaning toilets, guarding violent prisoners, and taking care of those sick and dying from deadly, contagious diseas, for that is the moral imperative."

Although I don't know a single supporter of national service who advocates such extremes, I do wonder why Martin Anderson is outraged by a moral imperative that seems to have had some influence on Mother Theresa and St. Francis, not to mention Jesus Christ. I suspect it is that most conservatives hate the idea of burden-sharing of any kind, because they want to be able to buy their way out of life's unpleasantnesses as they did by paying for substitutes during the Civil War.

This brings up my major complaint about Buckley's program: He does not include military service as one of the options. It should be the most important one. There are many reasons why, but for now it is enough to consider just one. By having all classes in the military, as we did during World War II, we could have avoided large commitments of troops to such missions as defending South Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. Bush would not have sent a hundred thousand soldiers to the Middle East if the sons and daughters of his friends had been among them -- if say John Sununu's son had been one, as Harry Hopkins's son was during World War II.

There are so few members of the influential classes in the military that Roll Call, a publication that covers Capitol Hill, could find only two congressmen with offspring serving in Saudi Arabia. Only one parent of a serviceman has been connected enough to have access to the op-ed page of a major newspaper ("If My Marine Son Is Killed," Alex Molnar, New York Times, Aug. 23, 1990).

Buckley has long been reluctant to face the failure of the upper classes to serve in the military. A few years back when, as a guest on "Firing Line," I made the point, he disagreed, citing the Southern elite as proof of my error. Of course he was lost in romantic visions of the past. He and George Will both have an image of noblesse oblige in the American upper class that has only the slimmest support in actual behavior. Think of how many rich people you know from the North or the South who have been in the military since the early 1960s. Two? One? None?

Of course opposition to national service is not limited to the affluent conservatives. The one catch to Sen. Howell Heflin's characterization of Republicans as "the Grey Poupon crowd, the Gucci-shoe-wearing, Mercedes-driving, polo-playing, jacuzzi-soaking, Perrier-drinking, Aspen-skiing, ritzy rich" is that it applies to much of the Democratic elite as well, although they substitute intellectual snobbery for polo. This is the group that used graduate deferments to escape service in Vietnam with such remarks as one my wife overheard in a bookstore: "Let those hillbillies go get shot."

Since then many of the educated elite have realized that this doesn't sound very nice, so they now say it would be wrong for them to serve in the military because they would thereby deprive some poor person of the job-opportunity offered by the services. The underlying message is still the same -- let the poor face the danger -- and still reflects the same ugly combination of cowardice and selfishness among the elite.

The people that are defined by terms such as working poor and lower-middle-class have been turned into suckers. They do almost all the military service. And they now bear a disproportionately large share of the tax burden when Social Security as well as income taxes are counted. Justice and fairness for them mean higher taxes and national service for the rich. OF ALL the objections to national service, a dislike of compulsion is the one most people share. This may explain why Buckley calls his program voluntary. But what he calls "inducements" for young people to serve a year under a voluntary system are actually no different from the penalties that I have proposed for a compulsory one: lost of student loans and driver's licenses. If they aren't coercive, they certainly come very close to being so.

I don't like coercion either, but I believe that people, especially the elite, have gotten so out of the habit of service that some compulsion is going to be necessary to get them back into it.

And remember, if Congress does enact a national service draft, it will be a Congress that we have elected that does the deed. If it turns out we don't like it, we can elect another Congress that will end the draft. We have, in fact, done so three times in this century.

The hole in Buckley's driver's license inducement is that loss of a license will not hurt the rich who have a chauffeur or who live in places where cars aren't important. But Buckley has an idea that would catch most of this group: Have the Harvards, Yales and Stanfords announce that they will not accept students who have not done national service. Think of how all those pushy parents who agonize over their children's prospects for admission to Ivy League schools would suddenly start saluting the flag and urging Jennifer and Jason to do the right thing for their country.

That service is good for the server is something to which I can personally attest, as one who was in the United States Army from 1944 to 1946 and one who was a Peace Corps official from 1961 to 1968. Even more important is the work the server can do, work that needs doing now, work that this society simply cannot afford to pay for in regular wages. From restoring the environment to rebuilding the infrastructure, great tasks confront us that a national-service equivalent of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s could help tackle. Teaching and tutoring in ghetto schools is another great need, as is providing day care for the children of the working poor. But the greatest problem that national service would help meet is the care of the elderly, especially the rapidly growing group over 85 who need help every day. Buckley is quite moving in writing about these people and about how the lives of young Americans would be enriched by helping them.

In these passages Buckley reveals what is for him a new dimension of human caring. I hope it is contagious, for it is a new dimension that most of his fellow conservatives, and a good many of the Mercedes liberals, desperately need.

Charles Peters is editor of the Washington Monthly.