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.

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

How America Can Get Its Mojo Back

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.