How America Can Get Its Mojo Back

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, center right, at a panel discussion on national service with Rep. Seth Moulton (center left) and Michele Flournoy (right) of the Center for a New American Security. Kevin Baron, far left, of Defense One moderated.

Photo by Steve Johnson of the Aspen Institute

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Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, center right, at a panel discussion on national service with Rep. Seth Moulton (center left) and Michele Flournoy (right) of the Center for a New American Security. Kevin Baron, far left, of Defense One moderated.

National service evangelists hope to inspire a cultural shift among millennials.

Capt. Seth Moulton left the Mar­ines in 2008 after four tours in Ir­aq and found him­self on the cam­pus of Columbia Uni­versity, watch­ing pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates Barack Obama and John Mc­Cain dis­cuss their shared pas­sion for na­tion­al ser­vice.

Moulton was the rare mil­it­ary vet­er­an in a crowd of Peace Corps and Ameri­Corps re­cruits, part of a gen­er­a­tion of young Amer­ic­ans with an out­sized ded­ic­a­tion to causes great­er than them­selves.

“It was ex­traordin­ary for me as a young vet­er­an who had just come back from the surge in Ir­aq to meet so many oth­er na­tion­al ser­vice vet­er­ans who hadn’t had the same ex­per­i­ence as I did, and yet we shared so much in com­mon,” Moulton said sev­en years later. “The com­mon­al­ity that I had in my ex­per­i­ence in Ir­aq with a Teach for Amer­ica vet­er­an in New Or­leans, for ex­ample, was not something that I ex­pec­ted to see, but I saw that there in that mo­ment.”

Wheth­er tot­ing a gun in Ir­aq or a shovel in New Or­leans, the young Amer­ic­ans at Columbia had sac­ri­ficed the first years of their adult lives to help oth­ers. They had lived and worked with fel­low Amer­ic­ans from dis­par­ate so­cioeco­nom­ic back­grounds. They had learned to think crit­ic­ally, to solve prob­lems, to lead.

For those mil­len­ni­als and mil­lions more, na­tion­al ser­vice has in­stilled the same sense of shared des­tiny and duty that the Greatest Gen­er­a­tion found in World War II.

See also: A Call To Service Can Help Unite A Divided Nation

Now Moulton is a Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man from Mas­sachu­setts and part of a move­ment to make a year of na­tion­al ser­vice a cul­tur­al ex­pect­a­tion for all young Amer­ic­ans. Year of Ser­vice evan­gel­ists be­lieve shared sac­ri­fice is an an­ti­dote to the great tox­ins of our times: po­lar­iz­a­tion and in­tel­lec­tu­al isol­a­tion.

Tra­gedies like the shoot­ings in Par­is and Col­or­ado no longer bring us to­geth­er; they pull us apart and in­to camps, each with its sep­ar­ate truths and out­rage. De­pend­ing on where you sit, Robert Dear is a cre­ation of either anti-abor­tion con­ser­vat­ives or anti-life lib­er­als. We, the people, no long share a com­mon set of facts, much less a com­mon cause, and thus Amer­ic­ans no longer be­lieve their coun­try is cap­able of shared great­ness.

We can’t fix big prob­lems.

“A lot of thinkers out there much smarter than I would say the reas­on we can’t do [big] things … is be­cause we don’t have na­tion­al ser­vice, be­cause we don’t have a com­mon ex­per­i­ence,” Moulton said while ap­pear­ing on a Frank­lin Pro­ject pan­el Monday at the As­pen In­sti­tute.

“We’ve nev­er had few­er vet­er­ans in Con­gress in our na­tion’s his­tory than today,” Moulton con­tin­ued, “and a lot of older guys talk about how it was dif­fer­ent when you knew that while you might have polit­ic­al dif­fer­ences, you could fo­cus on what was best for Amer­ica when you came to Con­gress be­cause you had that com­mon ex­per­i­ence of fight­ing to­geth­er in war.”

The Frank­lin Pro­ject is not call­ing for a mil­it­ary draft. It is not pro­pos­ing a man­dat­ory year of ser­vice (as I did here). Rather, the group hopes to cre­ate a series of pres­sures and in­cent­ives for na­tion­al ser­vice, in­clud­ing:

  • Pref­er­en­tial treat­ment in col­lege ad­mis­sions
  • Five-year uni­versity pro­grams that in­clude one year of paid ser­vice.
  • Cor­por­a­tions that al­low new hires to do a year of paid ser­vice be­fore start­ing their jobs.

The idea, re­tired Gen. Stan­ley Mc­Chrys­tal told the pan­el, is to raise cul­tur­al ex­pect­a­tions to a point that par­ents and peers start as­sum­ing that high school gradu­ates will spend a year in ser­vice be­fore get­ting on with their lives.

The ser­vice must be com­pensated, said As­pen In­sti­tute pres­id­ent Wal­ter Isaac­son, so that the pro­grams aren’t lim­ited to young Amer­ic­ans who come from wealthy homes.

“Nowadays,” Isaac­son said, “there’s just no ex­pect­a­tion that you’ll get out of your zip codes, your com­fort zones.” Isaac­son, a his­tor­i­an, said every good thing that has happened to Amer­ica was the res­ult of “people step­ping up,” sac­ri­fi­cing a bit of them­selves for the great­er good. “That’s been lack­ing today,” he said. “I think it un­der­girds all the in­ci­vil­ity and po­lar­iz­a­tion in the pub­lic sec­tor.”

Read more: Beyond the Draft: Rethinking National Service

“There is something about ser­vice that is es­sen­tial to cit­izen­ship,” said Mc­Chrys­tal, adding that Amer­ica has lost its ser­vice eth­ic “as we’ve been more at­om­ized and more an­onym­ous in more areas” of life.

Which is why it’s a na­tion­al shame that Obama failed to de­liv­er on his 2008 prom­ise to ex­pand Ameri­Corps, and a dis­grace that the GOP-led Con­gress wants to gut the pro­gram.

“There is the po­ten­tial to find polit­ic­al agree­ment on both sides of the aisle for an is­sue that does bring Amer­ic­ans to­geth­er,” Moulton said, “but I think it’s tough.”

NOTE: The pan­el was co-sponsored by De­fense One.

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