What if we brought back compulsory service, but changed it in one crucial way?


Let’s do a quick experiment. What are the first images and/or words that come to your mind when you hear the phrase “serving your country”?

Don’t think about it too deeply. I just want you to take a minute or two and note the knee-jerk response you have when you hear that phrase.

If you’re like most people, you probably thought of things like joining the military, doing counter-terrorism work, or working for institutions like the FBI or the CIA. The common theme here is that, to some degree or the other, these activities require you to do dangerous and physically-demanding work. I know I’m using quite broad generalizations there, but my point is that the term “serving your country” is generally associated with the types of heroic endeavors that might require you to get in harm’s way.

I think that it’s a real shame that our understanding of the phrase “serving your country” is so limited. In fact, I think that there are an amazing range of jobs and activities that do/should constitute service to your country and I’m sad that not enough people know or talk about them.

As a result, I will discuss these jobs and argue that they are just as important and worthy ways of serving your country as joining the military, doing counter-terrorism work, or working for the FBI or the CIA are. Then, I will discuss the controversial idea of bringing back compulsory service but suggest that we add one crucial modification to the rule.

Local government

Volunteering for or even serving on your local city council is a fantastic way to help your community and, by extension, serve your country. As much as you dream of dramatically transforming your country, you should probably learn how to change your community first. Just because work at local government seems less glamorous or heroic than similar work at higher levels of government, doesn’t mean that it’s any less important. Remember, true change starts at the local level.

I’m absolutely certain that your local government could use all the extra volunteering hands it can get, so why not offer your help?

Digital Service

I’m a big fan of the podcast This Week In Tech with Leo Laporte. It’s my weekly dose of technology news and in-depth discussion about not only the latest technological innovations, but their increasingly significant impact on society.

A few months ago I listened to one episode that made me aware of another institution that you can join to serve your country: The United States Digital Service (USDS).

In Episode 668 of TWiT, Matt Cutts, the acting administrator of the USDS, shared a fascinating story about the profound impact technology can have on American war veterans. Starting from the 1hr 48m 48s mark, Matt explains a time when veterans were trying to get their health benefits online through Veteran Affairs. To apply for these benefits, they had to use exactly the right version of Internet Explorer (couldn’t be any other browser) and exactly the right version of Adobe Acrobat. If they didn’t have the right versions of both of those, the application would tell them that they needed to upgrade their version of Adobe Acrobat.

Note: I recommend listening from the 1hr 45m mark of Episode 668 to hear a brief discussion that the panelists had about civil service. Listen for about 10 minutes or so.

However, Matt noted that this information was wrong. “You actually needed to downgrade your version of Adobe Acrobat,” he said. This error meant that every applicant eventually had to use the paper version of the form. No big deal, right? Some people prefer to paper versions of forms anyway because computers can be frustrating.

Unfortunately, filling out the paper version was actually a very big and very serious issue. “When you fill out the paper version of this form,” Matt says, “you have to wait 137 days on average to get your health benefits.”

Think about that. A Veteran who has served his/her country and returned from war, is in serious need of urgent medical treatment, and cannot afford it without these health benefits, has to wait 137 days because of an Adobe Acrobat-Internet Explorer error. I’m not an expert in coding, but something tells me that solving this error is child’s play for any coder/developer.

In fact, it seems like my suspicion was correct.

So we implemented this crazy revolutionary new technology along with the VA. We call it a webform [laughs sarcastically]… Now 50% of Veterans find out whether they’re eligible for their benefits in 10 minutes.
— Matt Cutts, Acting Administrator of the USDS, Episode 668 of TWiT

Leo Laporte (the guy with the grey-white hair in the episode) notes that most coders could probably code a webform in a few hours. Imagine that; just a few hours of coding makes such an extraordinary impact on the lives of millions of Veterans across the country. All that from a few hours of doing what many people love to do, are perfectly qualified to do, and frequently do from the comfort of their chairs and their cozy offices.

Technology isn’t just restricted to the big, glamorous, and glitzy Silicon Valley companies. The government needs it. Millions of Veterans need it. I urge you to get out there, find the Digital Service of your country, and consider joining it.

Don’t forget, if you’re an expert in technology, you can serve your country too.

This is nonpartisan work. I’ve got $100 million projects that might go off the rails for lack of 3 engineers, 2 designers, and 1 project manager.
— Matt Cutts, Acting Administrator of the USDS, Episode 668 of TWiT


Given that I was an AmeriCorps VISTA member for one year (and wrote a book about this), I’m probably a little bit biased here. Nevertheless, I think that being an AmeriCorps member (in either the NCCC, State & National, or VISTA programs) is an absolutely guaranteed victory for all parties involved for two key reasons.

Note: This suggestion is specific to the U.S., so you’ll have to find your country’s version of AmeriCorps (if there is one) if you don’t live in America.

First, the AmeriCorps programs are fantastic for recent college graduates because they require no prior experience. Every recent graduate is painfully familiar with the old (but true) joke about applying for jobs when you’re fresh out of school: every employer wants you to have [insert unrealistically high number] years of job experience, but no one is willing to give you a chance to gain that experience. This was a key reason that I became a VISTA; the program was the only one willing to give someone like me with no job experience a chance. This way, I gained job experience and helped the community at the same time. A win-win for all parties.

Of course, there is a downside here. The programs pay very little, usually only just enough to survive on assuming a pretty stringent personal budget. Hence, you have to be at a point in your life where you can afford to take a short-term financial hit in order to reap long-term professional rewards.

Second, I cannot understate the incredible service you give your country when you help communities prepare for and respond to natural disasters and strengthen critical organizations in communities that face the worst crises. Moreover, you can alleviate poverty in the most poverty-stricken regions of your country by creating economic development programs that provide people with the jobs they need to support their families.

Communities all over your country have a plethora of needs: better schools, better and affordable housing, more jobs, accessible healthcare, and so much more. The AmeriCorps programs are great ways to give struggling communities what they need:


Note: I was going to include PeaceCorps here as well, but since it’s an international program, one can argue that you’re not necessarily serving your country (directly). Nevertheless, I did want to mention it somewhere in this blog post, so here it is.

Teach for America (TFA)

As the TFA website states, “the circumstances children are born into predict the opportunities they will have in life… [only] 14% of children growing up in poverty will graduate from college within eight years of graduating high school.” Not only that, but there is a clear connection between disparities in educational attainment and disparities in median (and lifetime) earnings. Unfortunately, the fewer your educational credentials, the less money you (are predicted) to earn over the course of your life.

Hence, education seems to be one of the most effective cures for poverty. You can help increase the prosperity of many children and families across the country by joining Teach For America. It’s another fantastic way in which you can serve your country.

bring back Compulsory service?

A few months ago, I read an article that talked about how Italy's Interior Minister and deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini is/was considering bringing back compulsory military service for “its restless young citizens. It is, of course, a highly controversial idea that has certainly rubbed some people the wrong way. But what if, underneath the surface, there’s actually some sense to Salvini’s suggestion? What if, with one important modification, compulsory service isn’t actually completely insane?

Here’s my suggestion for this change. I think that if we bring back compulsory service, there has to be one crucial caveat:

The definition of compulsory service should be expanded to include working for the organizations I noted above, and other similar organizations.

Hence, if you’re going to force every 18yr old high-school graduate to do 2 years of compulsory service for their country, they should be allowed to choose from any of the following:

  • Military service

  • Work for local government/city council

  • United States Digital Service*

  • Teach for America*

  • AmeriCorps*

  • PeaceCorps*

  • Other similar governmental organizations

* Or the equivalent organization in your country of residence

The careful reader will note that, excluding the military service, all of this effectively resembles a forced 2-year internship. To be fair, as long as there are roles inside each organization for all types of professional interest — marketing, graphic design, technology, business, data analyst, etc. — I think this would be a pretty reasonable 2-year internship.

Moreover, going back to the issue of graduating from university and struggling to get a job due to a lack of experience, I’m in favor of a program that guarantees me 2 years of credible job experience for a governmental organization before I go to university, if I eventually decide to do so (because who knows, the organization might decide to keep me after my 2 years of service). That will look great on my résumé and I won’t have to travel to a war zone if I don’t want to.

Seems like a reasonable deal, don’t you think?

Whatsoever you do to the least of my people…

The important theme of this post is that even though many people don’t talk about it this way, serving your country absolutely includes teaching, coding, local government work, increasing the prosperity of your fellow countryman, and bettering other people’s lives through your hard work behind the scenes. You don’t have to fight, you don’t have to become a secret agent, and you don’t have to run through trenches or shoot bullets at an enemy. If you want to do that, that’s fine, but simply know that there are many other options available to you if you want to do something else to serve your country.

Therefore, I urge you to not only expand your thinking to incorporate this school of thought, but to also consider applying to any of the organizations I listed above. If you don’t live in the U.S., please find out about the organizations in your country that do work similar to the ones I stated above. I’m sure if you look hard enough, you’ll find them.

People glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbors.
— George Eliot/Mary Anne Evans

See you, Space Cowboy.