I once had a very close friend named Charlie. We spent every day together, much of the night, too. I got to learn about his family and old neighborhood, and he got to learn about mine, and then one day I saw him no more. I went my way and he went his, and it has been many years but I remember him still. We had been in the Army together.
What provoked this thought is Houston and its devastation — and now Florida and the Caribbean. We have been repeatedly told and shown how people have pitched in to help one another. The poor helped the rich and the rich helped the poor, and people of all races rescued each other. In Texas, this was called the Texas Spirit, and while my inclination is to mock and question everything about Texas, I will take a pass this time. The stories were convincing.
The storm, the flooding — the utter disaster — gave people a common problem and a common goal. It also reduced them to common socioeconomic status. After a while, people in trouble all look the same — wet, dirty, tired, often dazed. The storm throws them together and reduces them to the essential: people needing help, people looking to help. People. That’s it. People.
The Army did the same for me. I was 23, an erstwhile claims guy for an insurance company who had been plodding through college at night, six credits a semester. At Fort Dix and later Fort Leonard Wood, I got thrown in with country boys who had never had a toothbrush (the Army gave them false teeth) and tough city kids who strutted the barracks by day but cried for their mothers in their sleep at night.
I learned about their lives, even their sex lives (I will spare you), and I got to like them, and some of them liked me as well. We all had the same goal, which was to get through training. We all dressed alike, ate the same food, showered together and, over time, became a single unit. I mostly hated the Army, but I mostly loved those guys.
Now the Army is for volunteers only. Now affluent kids go to schools and colleges with similar people and, afterward, work is usually not much different. They don’t know anyone who never used a toothbrush or cries in the night for his mother or speaks in a Southern accent so thick in molasses it might as well be a foreign language. These folks do not, in short, know America.
We are a segmented society, living in our individual bubbles. It has become even worse recently, with people able to choose their news according to their predilections. Conservatives watch Fox News and read Breitbart. Liberals watch MSNBC and read HuffPost. When we agree, it’s the truth; when we differ, it’s fake news.
In civilian life, I never would have met Charlie, not to mention get to know him. We were of different religions, different tribes from different parts of New York City. He was a washing-machine repairman. I was more or less a college kid. We had little in common, yet we became the best of friends. It’s many years later now, but I can conjure his face and it still makes me smile. Charlie always made me smile.
I cannot seriously propose reinstituting the draft. I have to be realistic. This generation of gluten-avoiders is not going to happily share a latrine with strangers. (Oh, I’d like to see them ask my old drill sergeant for a trigger warning or a safe space.) But maybe some sort of national service would work — something lasting a year or so. Other nations do that — and they’re not the goose-stepping ones, either. Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Norway have versions of compulsory service.
Often the virtue of national service is described in the work done — public service projects of one sort of another. Fine. Spiff up the slums. Do some social work. But to me, the overriding virtue is education — learning about fellow Americans, getting past skin color or regional smugness, stereotypes that the rich have of the poor and the poor have of the rich. We need a national service that throws us all together, the urban with the rural, the Fox News types with the MSNBC crowd. That way Americans can get to know Americans and learn — as previous generations did — that we are all Americans. A common plight and a common goal is how Houstonians got to know Houstonians. A different plight and a different goal is how I got to know Charlie.
Richard Cohen’s email address is email@example.com.