McChrystal: Why America Needs National Service

Illustration by John Ritter

Standing recently in New Haven's small train station, I was approached by a stranger who thanked me for my service. His gratitude was clearly genuine—and I deeply appreciated it.

During my years in uniform (particularly after 9/11), and even in the months since my retirement, I was routinely thanked for serving. For service members today, that experience is common—a thoughtful gesture that has done much to maintain the morale of a force that performs so bravely for our nation.

Common—but thanking Americans for their service is not common enough. Nor can it be, because Americans performing critical, selfless service to our country are less common than they must be.

We have let the concept of service become dangerously narrow, often associated only with the military. This allows most Americans to avoid the sense of responsibility essential for us to care for our nation—and for each other. We expect and demand less of ourselves than we should.

And now it is time to fix it.

"Service member" should not apply only to those in uniform, but to us all.

The concept of national service is not new, nor is it outdated. When America needs it, national service is the personal obligation of every American. And she needs it now.

All of us bear an obligation to serve—an obligation that goes beyond paying taxes, voting, or adhering to the law. America is falling short in endeavors that occur far away from any battlefield: education, science, politics, the environment, and cultivating leadership, among others.

Without a sustained focus on these foundations of our society, America's long-term security and prosperity are at risk.

We live in a nation of rights, and jealously defend them.

Thomas Jefferson drew upon the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment's finest minds to articulate the concept of "inalienable rights" in defining the essential freedoms guaranteed to Americans in the new republic.

Those rights are sacred. We fought a war to make the Declaration's statement of rights a reality, and have sacrificed since to defend them.

But as important as those inalienable rights are, there are also inalienable responsibilities that we must accept and fulfill. Those responsibilities are wider than are often perceived or accepted. Just as we have allowed the term "service member" to apply solely to the military, we have allowed the obligations of citizenship to narrow.

Even the most basic responsibilities of being an American are considered optional by many. In the seeming anonymity of modern life, the concept of community responsibility has weakened, yet is needed more than ever.

Responsibility is most easily accepted when the need is clear and expectations are defined by tradition.

I saw this up close in Afghanistan. In a harsh environment, agriculture long functioned and flourished through the use of ingenious irrigation systems, often employing extensive and complex underground tunnels called karez that moved water to where it was needed.

Because the systems were essential, yet required manpower-intensive upkeep, maintenance was clearly understood to be a responsibility of the community, performed as a shared task without pay.

The shared responsibility served to unify the community. The Soviet intervention in 1979 resulted in damage to the systems; subsequently, private individuals acquired wells and pumps, disrupting the community dynamic. What had been a unifying responsibility for all was now a source of wealth for a few—and yet another source of frustration for the rest.

discussions of national service typically stall in the transition from general concepts to specific recommendations—because that's when it gets hard. It is here where we must clearly understand our real objective.

A veteran of AmeriCorps' National Civilian Community Corps described his experience working and living for a year as part of a 10-person team doing projects:

"My teammates were conservative and liberal, black, white, Asian, Jewish, Christian, atheist ... We had to get along or be miserable."

Today, 10 years after completing the experience, he finds that his former teammates remain in touch and believes the experience was absolutely instrumental in helping them determine their career trajectories. They feel it helped them develop teamwork skills, confidence, problem-solving abilities, community building, leadership, and communication skills. His favorite response, from a liberal New England–born Jewish woman about a construction project in rural South Carolina: "If I can learn to use eight different types of saws and work with 10 reverends to build a house, what can't I do?"

There has been a genuine effort with programs like AmeriCorps (and its expansion) and the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act to encourage, incentivize, and more effectively manage service to the nation. But despite their value, we have fallen short in mobilizing enough Americans to service.

We can always outsource work—hire other people to complete projects—arguably with greater efficiency. But we must understand that our real objective must be in shaping Americans. We must build into our society, and into ourselves, a sense of ability and responsibility.

We must recognize that service is typically doing things that you would not choose to do, but that must be done. It can be rewarding; it can also be difficult, onerous, and even dangerous. It cannot rely on short-term volunteers any more than our independence could be won by the people Tom Paine termed "summer soldiers and sunshine patriots." It must have people with a firm commitment, backed by a society that values their contribution.

Service need not follow a single model—or feel like the military. It should be voluntary (but expected), fueled by clear incentives. It can be a combination of nongovernment and government programs ranging from public health to the Peace Corps.

At its heart, the real value of national service will be more in the effect service has on those who provide it than the work they provide. There must be some common denominators that form a foundation for the program. As a start, I offer three:

• Service must involve a firm commitment for a specified period of time: at least one year. With few exceptions, that commitment should imply full-time involvement.

• Participants must be paid. The underlying concept of service and sacrifice (and relative inexperience of most young people) should keep compensation modest and relatively equal across the programs.

• The primary incentives for service should be a combination of things like education benefits and hiring preferences (similar to military veterans' programs).

Building acceptance of a responsibility to serve will require more than rhetoric, or even funded programs. It will demand a true cultural shift in how we view personal and community responsibility.

But it is a shift that Americans are ready for. They need only leadership and encouragement. As I saw in serving with the most elite military forces in our nation's history, performance is ultimately driven by the expectations individuals set for themselves.

When the best is demanded of us, we rise to the occasion. When our systems adapt to recognize and honor such service, that process is reinforced and accelerated.

Soldiers who have fought for a road, hill, or village understand the value they place on otherwise meaningless foreign ground when they have invested in its protection.

Teachers who have worked tirelessly to motivate students understand the value and potential of young people who would otherwise pass them unnoticed on the street.

My friend Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, has proved time again the power of ownership. By assisting Afghans and Pakistanis with materials and assistance in building schools, but demanding their direct commitment and responsibility, Mortenson has seen remarkable success. We shouldn't be surprised—it is predictable. But it is also hard work.

At home, more than building schools, we need to build a sense of ownership in, and responsibility for, America.

Critics sometimes point to the costs associated with service programs and argue that national service is an inefficient disruption of capitalist markets, producing a Soviet-style mismatch of talent to task and undermotivated workers. They argue that for young people, the program would represent a time-wasting delay of entry into our society and economy.

But perhaps those critics have never read accounts of workers who built the Hoover Dam or Panama Canal, or listened to service members of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" describe their feeling of contribution—and the effect it has had on their lives.

In an age that demands metrics of progress, how will we know when a culture of service has taken root? It won't be measured in the prose of pundits or the claims of politicians.

We will know when new graduates of high schools and colleges talk with each other about how, not whether, they will serve America.

We will know when the ambitious recognize that credible service is a necessary entry on their résumés. And when a cocktail-party discussion of "how I served" produces eager efforts to impress.

For me, personally, I'll know when a soldier stops a teacher in a train station and says, "Thank you for your service."

McChrystal, a retired four-star general, is the former commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan and the former commander of Joint Special Operations Command.