Commentary Magazine

Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country, by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Serving America

Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country.
by William F. Buckley, Jr.
Random House. 192 pp. $16.95

William F. Buckley, Jr. went to a prep school where the boys had to pitch in with the chores. Non sibi sed cunctis was the motto, “Not for oneself, but for all.” Now, half a century later, the prolific, confident, extremely lucky Buckley believes that what was right and good at that time and in that place would be right and good for America and all young Americans—so much so that he is ready to retire many of his remaining phobias about government and offer this not-so-modest, commendably detailed proposal for national service.

As in prep school, so from coast to coast, the aim of Buckley’s program would be to build character, induce fellow-feeling, encourage responsibility, create solidarity where today he finds there is hardly any. In short, he hopes through its youth to “regenerate” a country which, a decade after the start of the Reagan revolution he did so much to bring about, appears to him to be in bad shape. The symptoms are “instability of family life, listlessness at school, a growing national tendency to corruption, or hedonism; an insensitivity to suffering.” Writing after the Berlin Wall came down and before Saddam Hussein took Kuwait, the founder and recently retired editor of the National Review sees America demoralized.

Though the sight is disturbing, it also does not seem to surprise him. Buckley warned of the possibility as early as 1983, in his upbeat autobiographical volume, Overdrive:

There is much to complain about in America, but that awful keening noise one unhappily gets so used to makes no way for the bells, and these have rung for America, are still ringing for America, and for this we are obliged to be grateful. To be otherwise is wrong reason, and a poetical invitation to true national tribulation.

Now that the “true national tribulation” is upon us, Buckley would act by very nearly compelling all eighteen-year-olds to “acknowledge” their debt to their country’s institutions and protections. This debt would be paid by one year of “concrete service.” Boys and girls could choose to preserve forests in Wyoming, care for old people in Florida, tutor school in Illinois, prevent crime in the District of Columbia. In return, they would get $10,000 in loans and credits, plus something intangibly beneficial. They would be better, happier, more reliable citizens for their experience, and collective morale and morality would get a boost as the National Service Franchise Administration, a figment of Buckley’s utopian, practical imagination, becomes an institution.

Buckley has to spend much of Gratitude tending his right flank. Indeed, such an extension of government powers over the lives and wallets of innocent teenagers as his program would involve is not what one might have expected of a man who made his name crusading against the follies of New Deal social engineering. It was at Buckley’s country estate in 1960, after all, that the Young Americans for Freedom drafted their reactionary, revolutionary Sharon Statement. That document would have limited governmental functions to “preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice.”

Yet both America and Buckley have come a long way since then. If Buckley helped lift America up from liberalism, he had to stoop to conquer. For example, already in 1974, in Four Reforms, the tenth of his 29 books to date, he was no longer writing of abolishing but rather of changing the welfare system. He defended himself against his purist comrades then on grounds of practicality and ethics, bringing in Aquinas, Madison, and statistics, and he does the same now.

It was also in Four Reforms that Buckley first broached the idea of national service, recommending that no freshman be permitted to matriculate from college without, for instance, devoting a year to keeping old people company. Maybe it was no accident that this was around the time that Richard Nixon abolished the draft and reinstituted a volunteer army, to the relief of an ungrateful nation sick of Vietnam. The reformist Buckley was aware of this feeling. He wrote realistically: “The idea of public service of some kind or another by the citizenry has frequently been proposed. There has been an instinctive coolness toward the idea primarily because of the conscriptive feel of it.”

Have things changed? Despite the demonstrators on Pennsylvania Avenue warning against a new Vietnam in the Persian Gulf, the idea of firmly offering young Americans something to do besides getting ahead, having fun, or getting in trouble, while it may not be one whose time has come, at least no longer seems fantastic. A Citizenship and National Service Bill covering military and non-military volunteers and stopping short of conscription has been tabled by the hard-nosed Senator Sam Nunn. Conceivably, Buckley may be on to something feasible.

A feeling for the grass roots is crucial here. Buckley, often on the road, senses a “hunger” for service, an incipient altruistic, patriotic urge lurking behind the anomie. That urge needs to be stoked into a “national political will.” Buckley admits that to push through the legislation, nothing less than “changing the national ethos” about work, pleasure, and the self will be required, but he declares that he is optimistic.



Still, Gratitude cannot be called an optimistic book, and that is a departure for its combative author. Finally it is an odd sort of tract, hopeful and anxious, positive and nearly despairing, and fleetingly more revealing than either of Buckley’s two autobiographical works so far. Indeed, what Buckley says explicitly about his country and implicitly about the pair of institutions which he has naturally always revered and trusted most—the family and the church—seems downright desperate.

If “amorality, and anomie” are epidemic in the U.S., in the inner city and in the suburbs too, and if there is such a terrible emptiness in the hearts of young Americans as Buckley says there is, then the fault, the sin, is surely not to be imputed so much to the marketplace or the schools as to several generations of parents and priests, ministers and rabbis. Worse, if the government, in peacetime, must be called in to build character, this must mean that Buckley has all but given up hope of redeeming either the family or church from, at best, irrelevance.

And whether or not things are really as bad as Buckley reports they are, one wonders if his program would help much. To a reviewer who lives in Israel—where military service for males is mandatory to age fifty-two, and where even half the young women put in a couple of years in uniform—it is, in particular, the scrupulously civilian tenor of Buckley’s proposal which raises doubts.

Buckley, unlike Senator Nunn, would have the individual states, not the federal government, finance and administer national service. Unlike Nunn, he would also make no provision for volunteers to do their stint in khaki. This is not because Buckley has become a pacifist. It is because he seems to believe that most Americans still remain cool to the military, and any quasi-compulsory program which mixed social work with mortar practice would resemble a new draft and be unsellable. Besides, he thought when he wrote Gratitude that the happy conclusion of the cold war meant that Americans no longer had any good reason to learn war.

And yet, when Buckley, a U.S. Army veteran and proud of it, looks for a working example of national service, he comes up with Switzerland. This is where he skis, and where every male citizen must go to the army and the reserves, storing an assault rifle at home. “Shared experience in the military has unquestionably contributed to the morale of a heterogeneous nation,” Buckley writes. Maybe, he adds, it has even saved Switzerland from becoming another Lebanon, the implication being that the Lebanonization of the U.S. is not unimaginable.

At the very least, the burden shared by almost all Israelis in the Israel Defense Forces dampens the centrifugal forces at work on another heterogeneous nation, one which, like the U.S., has an immigrant present as well as an immigrant past. Israelis, bitching about it, by and large do their duty, and this is socially beneficial. Of course, Israel is menaced by warlike neighbors, whereas Buckley’s country is threatened only by rot, and by would-be Bismarcks like Saddam Hussein.

As it happens, however, Buckley’s magazine has been in the forefront of those most reasonably insisting that the U.S. should go to war if necessary to neutralize Saddam. “If it comes to fighting—as it very well might—the United States should hit with a heavy hand,” editorializes the National Review, adding that the goal ought to be “the overthrow of Saddam.”

Never since his own army days has Buckley felt as close as he did then to his fellow Americans. That this is a source of unhappiness for him can be deduced from several wistful lines in Gratitude. For example, “I have twice laid eyes on the neighbor north of my property [in the Connecticut countryside] and I have yet to lay eyes on my neighbor to the south. . . . Many Americans . . . feel a growing isolation from one another.”

The men and women serving in the Persian Gulf are volunteers, not at all a cross-section of the country whose economy, well-being, independence, and self-respect they may still have to kill or die for. If things should go wrong in the struggle with Saddam Hussein, the national tribulation conjured by Buckley might actually be on America, and he would then have reason to be even more nostalgic than he already is for the feeling of success, mission, and brotherhood he shared with other GI’s back in the last year of World War II, when he was drafted.

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