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An Eloquent Call for Universal National Service

800px-Stanley_A._McChrystal's_retirement_ceremony_2010-07-23_2Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and now the chairman of a project on national service at the Aspen Institute (and, full disclosure, someone WRM has known and admired for many years), has an eloquent call for national service in the WSJ today. He laments the low number of Americans who serve the nation these days; most young people, unfortunately, consider the duties of citizenship someone else’s problem.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” President Lincoln said at Gettysburg. To serve the country, Americans don’t have to put on a uniform. There is much that civilians can do. Here McChrystal’s idea:

At age 18, every young man and woman would receive information on various options for national service. Along with the five branches of the military, graduates would learn about new civilian service branches organized around urgent issues like education, health care and poverty. The positions within these branches would be offered through AmeriCorps as well as through certified nonprofits. Service would last at least a year. […]

Some, particularly after having just observed Memorial Day, might think that only war is capable of binding a generation and instilling true civic pride. But you don’t have to hear the hiss of bullets to develop a deeper claim to the nation. In my nearly four decades in the military, I saw young men and women learn the meaning and responsibilities of citizenship by wearing the uniform in times of both peace and war. They were required to work with people of different backgrounds, introduced to teamwork and discipline, unified by common tests, and brought even closer by sacrifice. Some discovered, often to their surprise, that they were leaders.

This transformation is not exclusive to the military. Those who disagree need only visit young teachers working 18-hour days together in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. In rural Colorado health clinics, in California’s forests, or Midwest neighborhoods devastated by tornadoes, skeptics would see teams of young people—affluent and poor, college-educated and not—devoting their days to a singular, impactful mission.

At Via Meadia we tend to be skeptical of calls to universal national service, and the occasional cries from the good and the great for mandatory service for young people give us the heebie-jeebies. We don’t think the American government is a feudal overlord that can demand compulsory service from the peasants, and people who think that it is, scare us. (We make an exception for a military draft in times of war or imminent danger of war.) But Stan’s idea—creating meaningful opportunities for young people to serve, making the case to them why they should serve, and creating a civil culture that rewards and celebrates voluntary service—is a different approach.

The devil is in the details, and we suspect it will be a long time before a national service program works really well. After all, America has been trying to give every kid in the country a good high school experience for almost 100 years, and spending a lot of money on it. The goal of providing meaningful service opportunities to millons of kids is probably even harder to reach. These programs often work best on a small scale and deteriorate dramatically when blown up to giant proportions. We suspect that the various Agencies of Official Voluntarism that Stan wants to set up would become ineffective and expensive hotbeds of mediocrity before much time had passed. One of the things a culture of voluntarism and service is about is reducing dependence on government; more leadership from religious and other private groups and less official involvement from the Ministry of Joy might mean a slower start but a more satisfying performance in the long run.

Quibbles aside, Stan’s proposal points to something very important that has gone wrong in the way we raise our kids. Kids need to be needed; they need to make meaningful contributions to the welfare of their family and to the broader community. They are human beings, and human beings who are shoved off to the side and given no meaningful work don’t develop very well. Whether or not this comes in the framework of a grand national service program, America’s young people need to spend time outside the bubble, doing real things in the real world.

Isolating our kids in a school bubble for the first 2o to 25 years of life is an excellent way to raise a generation of insecure narcissists, highly skilled in the observation of their own moods and sensibilities, weak in the values, skills, and self confidence that can make them effective in the wider world. Fortunately many of the kids turn out much better than we have any right to expect, but Stan McCrystal’s core insight is spot on: the disconnect between the mass of America’s young people and real world experience of duty and sacrifice is bad for our kids, bad for those who could benefit from their work, and bad for the country as a whole.

[Stanley McChrystal image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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  • Anthony

    Social capital its demise and resurgence underlie General McChrystal’s call. Victor Davis Hanson has a related piece in today’s National Review Online (Western Cultural Suicide). And of course Adam Garfinkle’s new E-book addresses issue.

  • Fat_Man

    Will some of them plant, water, prune, and pick the money trees that will pay for this?

  • Pete

    ” ….most young people, unfortunately, consider the duties of citizenship someone else’s problem.”

    Is this guy off his nut or what?

    Since when has citizenship been defined as working for the government and under its supervision? The government is suppose to report to us, not us to it.

    Right now it is a national disgrace that so many of our young have been academically stunted and morally corrupted by being forced into the public (government) schools, and this former general wants to extend government’s reach even further.

    It sounds like McChrystal’s hidden agenda might be to get canon fodder for the neo-cons next fool’s errant in nation building, of course to fought with politically correct rules of engagement. (Neo-con warmongers like McCain are itching to get it on with Syria and Iran. What’s after that, China?)

    Oh, and for everybody’s edification, the government is not necessarily the country. Mead knows this.

    Ideally, the country and the government would seamlessly overlap but that’s not the case with the corrupt political class we have.

    Back to the generalissimo. McChrystal is more part of the problem than he is of the solution. The man should go run some miles and do push-ups to blow off stream and never mind trying to ensnare the country in universal service like some well known fascists did in the 30s.

    • ojfl

      I do not think it is about wars and nation building Pete but I agree with you that relying on government for this is simply wrong. People should give of themselves of their own volition and at the local level, to local causes. No need for government intervention, just elevate the morality of charity.

  • vepxistqaosani

    While Pete (below) is more than a bit over the top, there is certainly something totalitarian about McChrystal’s proposal. And I mean that in the original sense of Mussolini: Everything in the State, nothing outside the State.

    Service is a good thing; government is merely a thing that can be used for either good or ill. As reported by WRM, the proposal seems to have the effect of cementing in our young peoples’ minds the idea that all good things come from the government and that all good things should come only and always from the government.

    This is, in the truest sense of the word, un-American — and an important idea behind the Blue Model, which WRM thinks, in other contexts, is not sustainable.

    The problem is not the lack of a government program. The problem is the majority culture. We are not part of it — our own children were home-schooled and we are orthodox Christians (formerly members of WRM’s now heterodox church) — so the reference to teachers rankles a bit. It would be instructive to learn exactly how much good, if any, McChrystal’s dedicated, hard-working teachers are actually doing. And our children serve, though not in the military. But that’s because they were brought up that way.

    The kids next door to us in Trenton who were not brought up that way are extremely unlikely to respond well to a one- or two-year term of service. They will certainly make the administration of any such program vastly more expensive that McChrystal can imagine.

  • Anthony

    Volunteering is great, and programs like Americorps should be commended and supported. That said, some observations are in order.

    First, the lack of a draft is not all bad. The absence of a mass of draftees means that the military has to offer an attractive compensation package to offset the loss of civil liberties and the physical danger that comes with serving in the military. This is a good thing, and it’s why the military is an avenue for upward mobility. In South Korea there is a draft for all males, and they don’t get a good salary or grants for college tuition at the completion of their service.

    My advice to young people would be to focus on 1. studying hard and obtaining marketable skills – generally this means STEM, the health sciences or the skilled trades, although there are notable exceptions, such as liberal arts grads that are studying Arabic with intent of working for the federal government.

    If a young person wants to work for free, they should focus this on their future career as soon as possible. Due to the very tight job market, they will need internships to offset the fact that they don’t have much direct work experience. Contrary to what this article claims, volunteerism is at an all time high! Professor Mead doesn’t even mention the fact that millions of young people are already volunteering, as unpaid interns for for profit corporations in the hope of obtaining future employment.

  • Anthony

    I think WRM (and thus McChrystal) is hinting that we need deeper changes than those on offer today – and not specifically for youth – that may aid societal foundations of trust. “The Price of Civilization Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity” also provides timely suggestions regarding proffered concerns.

  • qet

    To those commenters who object to the totalitarian overtones of McCrystal’s statements: Via Meadia already expressed the correct skepticism about that. The problem is that this country used to have the very “civil culture” Via Meadia proposes, or at least a culture far closer to that ideal than what we now have. That culture was never represented by a top-down monolithic national service regime but in countless local institutions. Over the past 50 years, the forces of “progress” in this country have done their utmost–and succcessfully–to undermine that culture, and reconstructing it is not something that can just be “done.” I myself was a Boy Scout and the Scouts certainly emphasize service to others, but today all Scouting means to the opinionating class is that it excludes gays and therefore is a retrograde institution that must be demolished. The fact is that culture is created from the ground up by actual living human beings in the times and places in which they live, persons who like all of us are flawed, prejudiced, sometimes bigoted, but who are as real as real gets–but the forces of progress distrust all individual initiative, preferring instead to see the energies of the citizenry concentrated by state command institutions and then directed into approved, ideologically sanitized channels. Owing to their complete misunderstanding of human psychology, those efforts never succeed, so we are left only with the ruins of a once great civil culture.

  • rheddles

    Congratulations to WRM and condemnation to Stan McChrystal.

    WRM is correct that the way we rear our children alienates them from society at large. Segregating them by age in custodial institutions for at least 12 of their formative years where they are constantly monitored by punitive sentinels no way to develop constructive adults. It was a good way to develop obedient factory workers.

    The most important step in ameliorating this situation is to have child labor and minimum wage laws reformed so that 14 year olds can work for money. This will serve two practical purposes; It will extend the work life by 5 years when people are eager and able to work (instead of extending it at the end of life when many are less and less able to work productively), and it will allow them to learn at the only educational institution that pays you, Hard Knocks U. The less practical but more important purpose served will be integrating young people into the adult community before they can become alienated adolescents.

    There should certainly be continuing educational opportunities available for those motivated to take advantage of them. They should be built around real world work schedules not athletic training schedules. And the public schools should be modified so that they teach everything an adult citizen needs to know by 8th grade. This is not an impossible task by any stretch.

    Just as the current situation is not ideal for many students, no other single alternative will work well for all. Young adults and their families should have a choice of multiple paths instead of the increasingly ineffective one we have today.

    Condemnation for McChrystal because he comes from an institution that has learned the futility of involuntary servitude. The military has seen nothing but benefit from the All Volunteer Service. If McChrystal really wants to draft civilians into government service, let’s do the same for the Army Of course there is no way the military would allow that. So why foist it on the civilian side?

    What McChrystal proposes is the penultimate in top-down blue-statism. But what would one expect from a four star general who has decades of hearing “Yes Sir!” from subordinates? A necessary transition for the transition from the Blue State is the understanding that the people are sovereign and the state exists to serve them, not vice versa.

    And this problem of community service has already been attacked by the schools. Is there any school around where there is not a compulsory community service requirement for graduation? As far as I am concerned it is community slavery, not community service when that service is compelled by the authorities.

    And the irony of quoting Lincoln in a post that speaks well of involuntary servitude is amazing.

  • Jim__L

    What we’re seeing is a failure of social cohesion on the lowest levels, despite all that we hear from big-government types as they endlessly wax lyrical about “community” generosity and social service, particularly citing the ubiquitous cliche of soup kitchens.

    I am not rich. But, if I had a dollar for every time someone enthusiastically recommended working in a soup kitchen, I would be. On the other hand, if I had a dollar taken away again every time one of these speakers actually worked in a soup kitchen… I’d still be rich.

    In the next breath, these would-be bisque-slingers and consumme-pushers deride exhortations to be a good brother/sister, good husband/wife, or good parent/child as “too limiting”. If we can’t fulfill our duties to people who have rightful claims on us and ties of affection with us, how in the world are we going to know on any practical level what we need to do for complete strangers?

    Nation-building enthusiasts often cite the failure of democracy to take root in countries with “weak institutions”. Honestly, I think that over the last generation this country has seen its institutions (churches, families, etc) seriously degraded, not least because of the overwhelming power-grab by Washington, and the expectation that DC will (and somehow can) solve all our problems on the part of our political classes and (seemingly a majority of) US voters.

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