An interesting idea from Stanley McChrystal

Stanley McChrystal, the former four star general in charge of the war in Afghanistan, wrote a very thought provoking  opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal.  He articulately argues that all Americans, not just those in the military, should serve the nation in some capacity.  With around 1% of the population in the military (which is an all-time low during wartime), there has arguably never been a time in our history when those who actively serve and civilian populations have been further apart.

McChrystal argues that national service, in which a young man or woman can make the choice in how to serve, would make the nation stronger and create a more robust and resilient citizenry.  He challenges the government, the private sector, and the American people to do something to collectively better the nation.

His piece presents an idea that would fundamentally change how our citizens participate in society, and it will certainly generate some controversy.  Even though it will certainly make many people uncomfortable, it is something worth thinking about; in particular is how he proposes that veterans could become an integral part of the program with his proposal that  “[r]eturning military veterans would be treated as the civic assets they are and permitted to use a portion of their GI Bill benefits to support a period of civilian national service, since such service helps them transition to life back home.”

I found his proposal to be very interesting.  I wonder how many boats his article will rock…

Here is a link to the article: Lincoln’s Call to Service – And Ours

The text, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal Online Edition (in case you are not a WSJ online subscriber), is below:

Lincoln’s Call to Service—and Ours

A proposal that would help young Americans understand that civic duty is not restricted to the military.


My father first took me to Gettysburg when I was 12 years old. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, home from the first of two tours in Vietnam. I remember in particular the hundreds of obelisks poking over the berms, the oxidized plaques attached to rocks and the statues lining the roadways. All spoke for the thousands of men and boys who had died in the grass and dirt serving their nation.

I was young, but I recognized the gravity of the place.

Though I went on to have a career in the military, the visits to Gettysburg with my father were not preparation for soldiering as much as they were early lessons in citizenship—a particular understanding of citizenship that President Lincoln defined and challenged us to fulfill when he delivered his famous address there. It’s a citizenship that does not simply reflect upon the sacrifices of others, but that honors their sacrifice through action: “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.”

Today, as ever, the task is unfinished. Yet the duties of citizenship have fallen from the national agenda. Talk of service is largely confined to buoyant commencement ceremonies. And too often it is just that: talk.

Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military—a historic low during wartime—leading to a broad, complacent assumption that serving the nation is someone else’s job. As we’ve allowed our understanding of service to be so narrowly limited to the uniform, we’ve forgotten Lincoln’s audience: With the armies still fighting, the president exhorted a crowd of civilians on their duty to carry forward the nation’s work.

It is right that we send off the young Americans graduating this month from high school, college and professional schools with speeches. They should be congratulated for completing the many exams now behind them. But we must remember another test—Lincoln’s test of citizenship—and begin to mark these important junctures in life not just with words, but with real-world commitment.

Universal national service should become a new American rite of passage. Here is a specific, realistic proposal that would create one million full-time civilian national-service positions for Americans ages 18-28 that would complement the active-duty military—and would change the current cultural expectation that service is only the duty of those in uniform.

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.

Returning military veterans would be treated as the civic assets they are and permitted to use a portion of their GI Bill benefits to support a period of civilian national service, since such service helps them transition to life back home.

The new service opportunities would be created in accordance with the smart rules that have guided AmeriCorps since its founding in 1994, which allow that program to field tens of thousands of service members without displacing workers and who fill vital niches their paid colleagues do not.

Serving full-time for a year or two needs to be a realistic option for all young Americans, regardless of their family’s finances. So civilian service positions would be modestly paid, as AmeriCorps positions are now. (Most AmeriCorps service-members receive a $12,100 stipend for the year, and if they complete their term of service, a $5,550 scholarship to help cover tuition or to pay off student loans.) Government agencies focused on the challenges that these service-members address, as well as the corporations that will benefit from employing Americans whose leadership will be cultivated by service, should step up to fund these efforts.

Instead of making national service legally mandatory, corporations and universities, among other institutions, could be enlisted to make national service socially obligatory. Schools can adjust their acceptance policies and employers their hiring practices to benefit those who have served—and effectively penalize those who do not.

More than most Americans realize, the demand to serve already exists. In 2011, there were nearly 600,000 applications to AmeriCorps—a program with only 80,000 positions, only half of which are full time. The Peace Corps received 150,000 requests for applications but has funding for only 4,000 new positions each year. This gap represents democratic energy wasted and a generation of patriotism needlessly squandered.

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.

Universal national service would surely face obstacles. But America is too big, and our challenges too expansive, for small ideas. To help stem the high-school dropout crisis, to conserve rivers and parks, to prepare for and respond to disasters, to fight poverty and, perhaps most important, to instill in all Americans a sense of civic duty, the nation needs all its young people to serve.

Whatever the details of a specific plan, the objective must be a cultural shift that makes service an expected rite of citizenship. Anything less fails Lincoln’s test.

Gen. McChrystal, a former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and of the Joint Special Operations Command, is the chairman of the Leadership Council of the Franklin Project on national service at the Aspen Institute.

A version of this article appeared May 30, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Lincoln’s Call to Service—and Ours.


8 responses to “An interesting idea from Stanley McChrystal

  1. It is worth considering. After serving in Vietnam and upon receiving my honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in 1969, I returned to the University of Oklahoma to complete my degree in geology. I was so disgusted by the public attitude towards veterans that I considered leaving the country and going to Australia. I learned that my USMC service would not count, and that I would have to fulfill their public service requirement after a couple of years in-country. That kept me from leaving, only because I had just served the public here.

    Long story, but I admire those Aussies still, and think the idea has merit and deserves serious consideration. I know a few young heirs, entitled ones, who need to learn to care about others, especially the less fortunate.

  2. The fundamental premise of the “universal service” is that people exist to serve and protect the State, and can be used as seen fit by those who control it. 

    Should we be conscripting people into the military or community service programs of some sort? Whether the government should require “national service” is a perennial issue that has enjoyed renewed emphasis during this time of economic strife, but let’s not mince words. What is compulsory national service but a type of slavery.

    I wish to make two compelling arguments against “universal service”. First, it is in violation of the 13th Amendment, which bans “involuntary servitude” except for convicted criminals. Second, universal service” carries with it the abrogation of all that is free about a free society. In my experience, most people seem to enjoy freedom. Freedom’s I chose to defend.

    Now, someone might object that neither McChrystal nor most other advocates of service are currently calling for mandatory labor. And that is true—currently. The trouble is that many national-service advocates don’t really see much difference between the voluntary and mandatory proposals. The organization Americans for a National Service Act says: “When people speak of National Service, the question invariably arises whether we are talking about voluntary or mandatory service. The answer is both. There are worthwhile ideas to be discussed with both systems. Some people believe that an incentive-based voluntary system is more politically viable. Some people think that National Service will not be effective unless it is mandatory. Certainly, with either option the devil is in the details.” 

    So, the freedom of Americans is a “detail” to be worked out later.

    In fact, this comes closer to the central issue. The correct question, is whether the parent or the state should be the overseer of the child. Do parents have a right to raise their child or does the state? 

    In addition, parents who engage in true, i.e., voluntary, service with their children are able to benefit as a family. Parents can teach their children what it means to serve, how to serve, when to serve, and whom to serve. The state, as a form of institutionalized coercion, is hardly an example of serving others. When a child learns that service is something required, as opposed to something voluntary, it no longer becomes a charitable or kind act. 

    Military needs aside, however, some politicians simply love the thought of mandatory service to the state. To them, the American government is America. Patriotism means working for the benefit of the state. On a crude level, the universal service appeals to patriotic fervor. This is why the idea of compulsory national service, whether in the form of military conscription or make-work programs like AmeriCorps, still sells on Capitol Hill. Conscription is wrongly associated with patriotism, when it really represents collectivism and involuntary servitude.

    • Great observations and discussion! It is indeed a slippery slope. I see both sides of the issue: where service by all would benefit the nation but the other side of civil liberty and freedom of choice is a strong counterpoint on the other side of the coin. The original article has generated a lot of debate, which is an indicator of a great subject for discussion.
      Thanks for posting!

  3. To be honest, I have to respectfully disagree about mandatory service. Involuntary servitude – which is what mandatory service is – is counter to individual liberty and the 13th Amendment which reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Of course the courts won’t agree but the courts have also claimed that “Separate but equal” was constitutional. My point is that when the government forces service – it basically threatens an individual to serve their country or else – it de-legitimize the government especially a representative government.

    As far as Lincoln goes, the Enrollment Act of 1863 brought the draft to the United States passed by congress and signed by the President. This act gave a pass to wealthy as those with $300 could pay the government and avoid “serving their country.”

    • Great points on both counts! There are historical precedents for both sides of the debate. McChrystal is not advocating for forced or mandatory service, but instead an approach that makes such service strongly encouraged. That said, it does stir the pot of civil liberties and the freedoms that the Constitution guarantees.
      Very interesting debate. Thanks for posting!

  4. Though not what McChrystal had in mind, I consider the volunteer work that I do for troops and my blog that endeavors to help close the divide between civilian and military, to be my version of “service.” Last Veterans’ Day I did a post where I asked Vets what three things they wanted civilians to know ( One of them mentioned a graduation speech that Tom Hanks gave at Yale. Here is an excerpt:

    We all will define the true nature of our American identity, not by the parades and the welcome home parties, but how we match their time in the service with service of our own….Give it four years, as many years as you spent here at Yale, in acts both proactive and spontaneous and do the things you can to free veterans from the new uncertainty that awaits them.

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