stanley_mcchrystal.gif (15519 bytes)Step up for your country

Stanley McChrystal

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. All of us bear an obligation to serve—an obligation that goes beyond paying taxes, voting and adhering to the law. America is falling short in endeavors that occur within our own borders: 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 “inalienable rights” that define the essential freedoms guaranteed to all Americans. 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.

The concept of national service is not new, nor is it outdated.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. 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 is shaping Americans.

We must recognize that service is typically doing things that we 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 contributions.

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.

There has been a genuine effort with programs like AmeriCorps 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. 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 a program of national service. 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 the 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. We need only leadership and encouragement. 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.

At home, we need to build a sense of ownership in, and responsibility for, America. My friend Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools,” has proved time and 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.

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.

Stanley McChrystal, a retired four-star general, is the former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. He currently teaches a graduate seminar in leadership at Yale University and serves on the board of directors of JetBlue Airways. His article is edited from Newsweek, January 23, 2011, and appeared in PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2011.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)