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A Call to National Service
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“Where did you serve?”
If Gen. Stanley McChrystal has his way, some day that question won’t refer just to military service but to a new year of national service that will be a rite of passage for young Americans and a force to unite us across partisan, economic, racial, and geographic lines. Renewing our common identity as Americans is long overdue, but McChrystal’s national service plan first has to overcome one glaring problem: Americans.
McChrystal, best known as the general forced to resign his command in Iraq for mouthing off about Joe Biden in a Rolling Stone article, has dedicated his retirement to evangelizing for national service. At a speech last weekend at a gathering of the Truman National Security Project-of which I’m a member-McChrystal made it clear that he wanted to broaden the concept to service beyond the military.
“The military doesn’t need every young person and every young person isn’t right for the military. But everyone can serve,” he said.
McChrystal will be headlining a summit on national security at Gettysburg next month, so with any luck this will become a national topic of discussion that will move from editorial pages to kitchen tables. As someone-as an American-who believes our country is more a journey toward a more perfect union than a destination on a map, I’m all for it.
We have come a long way since Barack Obama gave his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention that we don’t live in red states or blue states but in the United States of America. Unfortunately, we’ve gone in the wrong direction. Americans have become better at pointing fingers at each other than toward a common purpose. As a Democratic consultant, I’m no different. Actually, I’m worse.
We aren’t simply a nation of red states and blue states. We are a country of red and blue districts, precincts, and households, microtargeted into segregated realities. We sit in pews and attend schools among our own kind, whether we’re talking racially, ethnically, or economically.
The gospel McChrystal’s preaching reminds us that we are all in this together and provides a way for us to start acting like it. The details are fuzzy, but this is generally how it would go: A teenager would volunteer for a year of service in the military or for groups such as Teach for America or the Peace Corps. To make sure the poor could afford to serve, volunteers would be paid. For the well to do, McChrystal muses about advantages for college admissions.
At its peak, he imagines up to a quarter of each generation giving up a year for national service, something he predicts will fundamentally change both them and us. “A chance for every young person to serve would change the country,” he told the Truman Project, and he’s not wrong. But good intentions won’t be enough to make national service a reality.
In his talk, McChrystal called the 30 percent of Americans who fail to graduate from high school a demographic land mine waiting to blow us up. But poverty, not a flagging sense of common national purpose, is the culprit there. Thinking that a high-school dropout can overcome poverty through national service is a farce that indulges in the comforting delusion that one can overcome economic immobility with patriotism.
There are other problems, but ultimately McChrystal’s plan is a half measure. Originally, he spoke of reinstituting the draft. In his speech before the Truman Project, McChrystal said that if he had his way, he would make national service mandatory. He should have stuck to those guns.
Instead, McChrystal hopes to imbue voluntary national service with a coercive prestige that raises the stakes when people are asked in a decade, “Where did you serve?”
“In our future vision, if there’s no answer, we want those people to be very uncomfortable,” he said.
I am prepared to be disappointed. McChrystal’s plan is far from perfect, but so are we. Getting Americans to read a book, floss, or even vote is a challenge. Most Americans can’t even spell unity. But maybe we can put down our remotes long enough to come together and be a more perfect union. It’s worth a shot.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at and on Twitter @JasStanford.