Nationalism classically is defined as “a feeling of collective ‘we-ness’ based on a common history of shared experience.”
This feeling is reflected in the motto above the eagle in the presidential, E pluribus unum: “out of many, one.” Indeed, the identity politics of the day has coughed up a multitude of pluribuses (manys): Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, independents, capitalists, socialists, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, straights, LGBTQs, atheists, evangelicals and feminists, to name just a few.
Sadly, these many groups today lack a common history of shared experience, and are losing any sense of we-ness (unum).
Instead, they live their lives separately and insulated from each other, hurling such insults as “deplorables,” and worse, at “others.” These too many pluribuses are dissolving the unum to America.
Twas not always so. To better understand my mother’s generation, she handed me a copy of William Manchester’s “The Glory and the Dream,” which laid out the unifying American historical experience of the mid-20th century.
What Tom Brokaw later proclaimed “The Greatest Generation,” shared, as an entire country, the general suffering of the Great Depression and the common sacrifices of World War II, “the good war.” This common history of shared experience sealed the unum on top of the pluribus of America.
Can we recreate this in the 21st century? One way to start would be to give all young adults the common experience of national service. This would involve the universal conscription of all able-bodied 18- and 19-year-olds into national service: some to the military, but others could opt for rebuilding our national parks, serving in the Peace Corps, Teach America, other government-sponsored and approved service organizations, working in hospitals, and other public institutions. Conscripts would earn a uniform “living” wage paid by the federal government and subsidies (donations) from corporations, unions, the political parties and the like.
In addition to a shared generational experience, such conscription would reinvigorate the concept of citizenship. In the Roman Republic, it was not enough to be born in Italy. Citizenship was a duty of paying taxes and bearing arms in the defense of the republic. Today, most Americans have become citizens merely by virtue of being born here, often with little appreciation for how lucky, and basically undeserved, this privilege is.
It would be nice to inculcate in our youth the sense of owing some service for this privilege. In such universal national service, America’s youth will be pulled from their silos into a world where, for two years, no one is an “other.” The hope is that such a formative experience of unum will last through all the pluribuses of their subsequent lives.
It worked for me.
I went to a college that was virtually 100 percent white — and three-fourths Lutheran. I was given an idealistic, “one-world” education. In this world, everyone believed in liberal democracy, world peace and universal human rights in a borderless world. But in 1969, the draft sucked me into the U.S. Army, the Green Machine.
The Army was none of this one-world idealism, but reluctantly, I began to learn things. I came into contact with people I would never have known otherwise. At Fort Dix, N.J., I met Jews from New York. I got into a fight with one; and, to my surprise, he became my good friend. At Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., I trained to be a combat engineer with Cajuns from Louisiana. I could barely understand them, but they could heft the steel planks of a Bailey bridge better than any of us.
I also got to know some Catholics from nearby St. Louis, and, to my shock, I realized that they were Christians, too. There were Puerto Rican drill sergeants who wore their uniforms with an obvious pride that I could only admire. At the other end, I met an advertising executive from Chicago who let me know that the advertising industry is what was driving Western civilization. We became friends anyway.
There were, of course, a lot of blacks in the Army. Race relations were tense in Missouri in 1970. An altercation in an off-post bar led to a near brawl in our barracks. A black sergeant major from the military police lined us all up beside our bunkers and chewed us out. “You are all American soldiers, and the only color in This Man’s Army is Army Green. When you are out there in Vietnam, and the blood starts flowing, there is only one color to that blood, and that is red. And the only one that is going to help you stop up that red blood is a guy wearing Army Green. And you’re not going to see if that guy is white or black, only that he is Army Green.”
I have never forgotten this. My prayer is that all our young adults will be given the opportunity for a national service that will enable them to live our American motto: E pluribus unum.