How to Bridge America's National Divide

Hugh Winig

A bridge extending toward the other side, out of frame

By Hugh Winig, M.D.
Dr. Winig is a retired psychiatrist and a longtime OLLI @Berkeley member and volunteer

When I turned 18 back in 1961, I was required, as all males were in the U.S., to register for the military draft. This was a normal expectation of “boys becoming men” during that era. Women were not required to register or enlist, and men could be excused for medical reasons or other major limiting factors. For people pursuing higher education, this commitment to national service could be deferred.

In my case, I was able to defer my military commitment until after I had completed college, medical school, and psychiatric specialty training in university settings on the East Coast. This allowed me to enter the United States Air Force as an officer at which time I was assigned to a base in Montana where I served for two years to treat both military personnel and their families. This exposed me to a very different demographic of people and geographic area from my previous life experiences.

Today, this broadening experience, as well as my own professional contribution to our nation, is no longer required of anyone. I acknowledge that it is unlikely that I would have volunteered to do so if it was not required of me. Servicemen and women today are made up of people who do voluntarily elect to serve their country wherever they may be assigned.

It is my contention that reinstituting some form of required National Service would contribute toward unifying our nation and reducing our enormous and hostile political divide. If people were required to work for two years in an impoverished rural area, a struggling city, on a reservation for indigenous peoples, as examples, this experience could contribute to a reduction in the tribalistic instincts that impact so many Americans today.

Once people meet others from diverse backgrounds, it is far less likely that the vilification and disparagement of groups of people that we see occurring today would persist to as great a degree. Instituting required National Service, akin to a domestic Peace Corps, as part of what is expected of each of us as citizens as we come of age, is a powerful way to salvage our United States of America.

I understand that many people would resist such a requirement, believing that they deserve freedom from any national obligation. But all one needs to do is listen to the news any day and one is reminded of the deep divisions that exist in our nation that must be addressed if we are to have a more united future. Required National Service would be a constructive step toward uniting our deeply divided American populace so that our United States can survive. As a result, people might even agree on the reality that the 2020 Presidential election was fairly decided!

Hugh Winig, M.D. is a retired psychiatrist, the author of a book of short stories and a book of humanistic aphorisms. He was a founding Trustee of the Lafayette Library and Learning Center and a past President of the East Bay Psychiatric Association. He is a longtime OLLI @Berkeley member and volunteer.