This week retired General Stanley McChrystal will continue his advocacy for the “Franklin Project,” a group whose goal is to create a universal national service program for those between the ages of 18-28. Their message has gained so much momentum that it headlines this year’s security summit hosted by the Aspen Institute. Promoting this idea alongside the former General is a bold group of panelists (Mitch Landrieu, Barbara Bush, Wes Moore) whose aim is to make national service not just a new American priority, but also a rite of passage.
It is easy to applaud an effort to engage young citizens by asking them to give back to their country. But it is harder to envision a motivated force taking up this groundbreaking charter simply because there is an emerging mandate. The push for greater participatory civil engagement stems from a group several generations removed from today’s millennials. The disconnect between these two demographics is striking.
On one hand, McChrystal is a man who has dedicated himself to the service of this country in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other, 99% of the millennials that he wishes to recruit have never even worn the uniform. In addition to an obvious gap between these two, there is also contradiction. McChrystal (age 58), is leading the charge for compulsory service but missed Vietnam and the perils of a draft that required thousands of Americans to fight a war that they disagreed with. He himself volunteered for service. Yet, his expectation is for the next crop of leaders to not come from the same voluntary mold. Ironically, this model seems incongruent with the definition of service than may have come to know.
To be fair, McChrystal has softened his approach in this area. He has previously stated that he believes in reinstituting a military draft. Few of his colleagues in the Franklin Project actually favor a mandatory service requirement. Instead, they support a program that is“socially obligatory,” that develops into a culture of service much like the WWII generation. Their aim is for institutions of higher learning to weigh service commitments heavily as being contingent for admission. This kind of incentive based project is not unique. Indeed, many servicemembers join the military today for educational packages like the Post-911 GI Bill and tuition assistance. Patriotism notwithstanding, such “carrots,” are strong recruiting tools that reel in large pools of talent for our armed services.
This quid pro quo relationship between the government and its civil servants is a long-standing one. Those who wish to further their lives by using their military experience as a stepping-stone to other career goals are the norm rather than the exception. In fact, only17% of servicemembers actually make it to the 20-year requirement for a full retirement, and even those who get out in their early forties go on to do other things. The motives behind service range from Nationalistic to self-serving and every point in between.
Despite a cause for concern that young citizens are apathetic about shaping the future through public service, many millennials are doing just that privately. Social media has revolutionized the way the world communicates and this has spilled over into various sectors and industries. Millennials can take credit for that. Moreover, mission statements by many companies are evolving to encompass globally aware brands to meet social objectives alongside profit maximization. An emerging “Conscious Capitalism,” is becoming a growing trend in business and is seen as more attractive to both consumers and job seekers. Therefore, the notion of service should not only be seen as something the public sector can produce but one that encompasses much more.
Public-private partnerships are already being used to tackle a multitude of issues of national interest. Continuing to strengthen these bonds so that they work in concert with one another in order to maximize effort is both strategic and economically efficient. Small government proponents will look at a national service requirement as an overextension of Uncle Sam’s powers and yet another big government takeover that costs money. The argument against such a project is much more than political. It is fundamental.
Service by its nature is a choice. Volunteerism by order or societal pressure cheapens its meaning and in turn has the potential to weaken its product. While a wake up call should never be discounted, Millennials do not necessarily need someone telling them how to serve after high school. Many are figuring this out themselves. Instead of a mandatory public service component (e.g. military, peace corps, AmeriCorps), the US ought to foster innovative problem solving at the individual level. World problems are constantly evolving each day and finding answers takes much longer than a year commitment. It will take a sustainable effort across various industries based on individual initiative and ingenuity. Millennials must become empowered to find solutions in a way that fits their generation not their parents’.
In McChrystal’s op-ed in the WSJ, he cited a 2011 study, stating that there were far more applicants for AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps than there were positions. Those statistics alone prove affirmative that the Franklin Project is right in assessing the desire of young citizens that want to serve. Where there is a void in funding or positions, there is an opportunity to create something much more powerful and lasting. Newly minted veterans are leading this charge and are finding ways to serve outside the traditional models. The key is to encourage and mobilize a group of citizenry that serves because they want to, not because they are coerced.
The all-volunteer force is elite because they chose to put themselves in harms way. Would this country really want to involuntarily put someone on the front lines again that was only mildly interested in self-sacrifice? Would growing the Peace Corps from 8,000 volunteers to 80,000 non-volunteers really make the world any more or less peaceful?
McChrystal’s audacious plan is ambitious; it is admirable, but regretfully misguided. Where he and the Franklin Project miss the mark, is that America is best when its people are called to service, not ordered. The one common denominator found in today’s military, is that their service is 100% voluntary. They raise their right hand understanding the risks and our country is better for it.
A rite of passage for citizens is found no place in our Nation’s history. The idea that everyone ought to “earn” his or her citizenship is not only Constitutionally flawed, it is erroneous. America is great because it is free. Free to go to war or protest. Free to be friendly to its neighbors or privately ignore them completely. Many of us who have served this country did so because we believed in the ideals of that freedom. To mandate anything else is un-American.