The concept of service to this country has existed within a very narrow lens for quite some time now. Military service from 1940 to 1973 was largely compulsory due to the draft; millions of young men served in the military for two to four years to support this nation’s growing global military commitment. On the heels of the Vietnam War – and due to the changing geopolitical landscape in the post-colonial Cold War world – the United States shifted to an all-volunteer military. Since the post-Cold War downsizing of the US military in the early 1990s and the concurrent advance in technology in the years since, fewer and fewer American citizens serve in the military. My argument here is that over the course of three generations this nation has shifted from a more democratized concept of service to an exclusive concept of service which has had negative effects on what patriotism means.
The Council on Foreign Relations in 2018 illustrated the picture I just described: In 1973, 2.2 million Americans were in uniform; however, by 2018, only 1.29 million Americans were in uniform, representing just 0.5% of the US population. For now, I am tabling the foreign policy aspect of this discussion; I am not discussing whether we need to go to war, whether we need to prepare for war, or whether it is right or wrong for us to have a military footprint in foreign lands to project American interests. This conversation is simply about the psychology of service and how this intersects with patriotism, race, and masculinity. For example, white males comprise nearly 60 percent of the Navy members and 80 percent of the Marine Corps. If the concept of service in this country remains strongly tied to military service and less than 1% of the population overall serves, then thinking of patriotism as an act practiced only by those who serve in the military is decidedly narrow. With this logic, patriots comprise an exclusive subset of the country’s population. Considering the numbers referenced above, it is not surprising, then, that service to the country and the concept of patriotism persist as predominantly white male spaces.
Service is a cornerstone of American exceptionalism, which I define as the belief in a uniquely virtuous, objective and independent American identity. This belief is problematic given that it often affords its proponents the psychological space to govern moral superiority internationally as well as domestically. Given this, a narrow or limited definition of service only reinforces a paradigm that “others” those deemed unfitting of the ideal. American exceptionalism sine qua non to American cultural identity and rests firmly within a white, Protestant frame of reference. Arguably, a permeability exists for people of color that was experienced more in the latter half of the 20th century and in the beginning of the 21stcentury than in any time prior to the rise of the modern civil rights era in the 1950s. This permeability affords entry into and offers some measure of acceptance within the hegemonic space by emulation of social location, or emulation of social psychological and spiritual markers of the hegemonic archetype. I concede that the archetype has no meaning but for its context and meaning by those who ascribe to it. However, this is at the heart of the matter with the hegemonic archetype in America: its expansion to include people of color is often temporally driven and illusory. Beneficiaries, those who successfully emulate the social location, social psychological and spiritual markers and even some of the physical attributes of the hegemonic ideal, enjoy social, psychological and spiritual comfort – a relief from dissonance – through their perceived proximity to the cultural ideal. Conversely, the hegemonic archetype finds comfort in their perceived benevolence which provides relief from any psychological or spiritual dissonance within racialized spaces. This is the paradigm of American exceptionalism in the 21st century.Is it possible to unhinge service and patriotism from the white frame of reference that is the paradigm of American exceptionalism in the 21st century? What mechanisms can be implemented to democratize concepts of service and allow more inclusivity? I believe a comprehensive shift is possible through considering a plan in which all 18 to 22 year old young people should serve this country in any one a multitude of capacities. These could include the following: 1) Urban revitalization through planting urban farms and expansion of food bank capacity in urban areas; 2) Building small homes for homeless communities; 3) Building technical infrastructure which will allow greater internet accessibility to remote communities; 4) Cleanup of US National Parks and Monuments; 5) Provide labor and support for new and emerging entities in the sustainability industry; or, 6) military service. The point here is that not everyone has to carry a rifle to be considered invested in the sustainment of our country and if we can democratize the concept of service, it is taken out of an exclusive space belonging to any one part of the national population. Service and patriotism can still go hand in hand – just unhinged from a hegemonic cultural framework.