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YOUNG PEOPLE SHOULD SERVE COUNTRY

Another Memorial Day finds the American people once again acknowledging the debt we owe the men and women who serve this nation in uniform.

The skill and valor they demonstrated in rolling up the opposition in Iraq is but the latest evidence of the quality of the people in the armed forces. Cynical as reporters are supposed to be, none of those I know who were embedded with units in the Persian Gulf came back with anything but the deepest admiration for those whose actions they covered.

It is good that we take a special day each year to think about and honor those who have fought the nation's wars and guarded what is often a fragile peace. It does not demean or dishonor them to suggest that this holiday is also a time to consider whether the ideal of national service, which they represent, should be extended to a much larger part of our population -- especially our young people.

The military is opposed to resuming the draft. The performance of our all-volunteer services constitutes a valid argument against conscription for military duty. But there is also a real cost to this country for indulging the notion among those who are entering adulthood that they have no obligation to their country.

This nation is very good to most of its young people. To be sure, poverty rates are too high among children. Education is inadequately delivered in too many urban schools. But even acknowledging all of this, compared to past generations of Americans and to any similar cohort of young people in the world, most American youths have extraordinary opportunities, because this country has decided, rightly, that they are the very best investment we can make.

Is it wrong to suggest that those who are the recipients of this national investment might be asked to give something back to the community and the country? I do not think so.

Through the luck of history and through the decisions of their elders, no young Americans for three decades have been required to give up a period of their lives for military service. That exemption has nothing to do with their merits or their superior qualities. It is purely a matter of timing.

Meanwhile, we know that large unmet needs abound in this society. In the last few months, I have heard reports documenting the looming manpower crises in nursing, in teaching, in a wide variety of social services and in the bureaucracies of state and federal government.

In each of these fields, an aging work force, often underpaid, is being forced to work beyond acceptable limits to meet the demands of this society. Case loads rise for probation and parole officers. Day care centers suffer rapid turnover of help, because the pay is so poor for the responsibilities involved. Hospital nurses are forced to work extra shifts, because otherwise patients would go without care. After years in which class sizes have been whittled down, teachers once again find themselves struggling with more students than they can really engage and monitor.

Meantime, each year at this time, hundreds of thousands of young men and women are graduating from colleges (where the cost of their education has been subsidized, directly or indirectly, by the public) and are being encouraged to pursue their careers, without much regard to their societal obligations.

Those careers can be productive and fulfilling and often of great value to the nation. But the good that these young men and women (and their counterparts finishing high school, junior college and trade schools) could do if they all contributed a year of their lives, at the outset of their careers, is almost incalculable.

A wide spectrum of Republicans and Democrats supports plans for national service, but the idea languishes for lack of White House sponsorship. This president has cultivated a particularly close relationship with servicemen and women. His admiration for those in uniform seems genuine. Nothing would honor their example more than making national service an experience that an entire generation of young Americans could share.

Especially at a time when vital home-front tasks are being short-changed because of tight budgets, the wealth of talent and energy represented by our young people could make a huge difference if applied to the nation's needs. It would take the spirit of this holiday and give it real substance.

Washington Post Writers Group

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