Don’t Call Us

Why National Service Won’t Save America

Elites just love the idea of a year of civic service and say it will bind us together. That depends on who the “us” is.

01.11.15 11:45 AM ET

In today’s America, a new year brings a new call for national service. As usual, it comes courtesy of a certain segment of the national elite. Mass public service is the pet policy project of a leadership class convinced that we’re doomed to disintegrate without the proper social tutelage—and that only they can provide it. But even if their fears are in the right place, their sense of a cure is badly mistaken.

This time around, it’s retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal leading the charge, in typical public-private partnership fashion. Now under the auspices of the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project, McChrystal has teamed with Dubya-era greatness schemer John Bridgeland. Their goal? A million twentysomethings spending a year in national service by 2023.

With military efficiency, out rolls the PR campaign. In a recent symposium at Democracy, McChrystal argued that national service—“culturally expected, if not quite mandatory by law”—was essential to “securing the American character.” (Hadn’t you heard? Our very identity faces an existential threat.)

This month, McChrystal has taken to CNN to preach to the masses. “Like many Americans,” he claims, “I believe our country would benefit greatly if we were to unite around a commitment to service.” Or if we were compelled to unite, anyway. McChrystal’s idea of emergency national unity follows the same pattern of elite thinking as Obamacare or the Common Core—a top-down consensus forged in the tearooms of big government and big business, implemented in every city and hamlet in the name of rescuing not just present-day people, but the future of America.

Neither of those two grand projects has enjoyed the smoothest road or the warmest reception. Undeterred, perhaps McChrystal, Bridgeland, and company detected a unique confluence of opportunities:

First, distress over public disapproval of police has inspired explicit and favorable comparisons between cops and military servicemen. Searching for American institutions that strive to attain the “majesty” of “devotion to duty and honor,” Michael Goodwin despaired at the New York Post that he found “just two”—the US military and the NYPD. “It is a measure of our warped era that both are under vicious attack.”

Second, influential observers are sighing over the armed forces’ shaky status in the public’s imagination. But rather than hating the military, popular opinion has shifted more toward simply disassociating with the whole concept of coercion with honor. The Atlantic’s James Fallows frets that the cultural disconnect between troops and civilians “inevitably leads to dangerous decisions the public barely notices.”

Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Fallows that “fewer people know anyone in the military. It’s become just too easy to go to war.” As James Kitfield reports at National Journal, a growing cadre of military leaders have become deeply troubled by the cultural isolation of the armed forces. Their aim is “to somehow renegotiate the compact between citizens and soldiers,” even if they ultimately shy away from a new draft.

For some elected officials, this situation is catnip. Few are calling, as Rep. Charles Rangel did last decade, for reinstated conscription. Many, however, are ready to stand with McChrystal’s kinder, gentler vision of national greatness through national service.

The third lucky break for McChrystal and Bridgeland is the presidential pre-season. “Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio and Rob Portman,” according to Dana Milbank,“have all expressed interest” in the national-service issue. For the Greatest Generation, Bridgeland told Milbank, “happiness wasn’t some individual right but something we helped one another achieve. We’re trying to rescue that notion for a generation that’s lost its way.” Talk like that is the holy grail of political rhetoric, fusing sensationally ambitious optimism with fearful, embittered pessimism.

It’s perfect—too perfect. From their perch of power, our elites have only a partial view of the sources of national dissipation in a democracy. Obsessed with a fear of national failure that first arose centuries ago, they grasp what makes us weak, but not what makes us strong. Yes, they understand that shared citizenship is not enough to hold a democracy together—to transcend both the torpor and rancor that characteristically make democratic politics so mean and petty, so excessively tribal yet so narrowly self-interested. But they seem ignorant of why neither compulsory military service nor culturally expected national service can make us into who we must be to preserve the Republic.

Even when the relationships forged in national service run deep or last long, the patterns of thought, feeling, and action that arise from them don’t always correspond closely to the challenges of cultural life in a democratic society. We shouldn’t expect them to. Military service can leave people maladjusted for civilian life—whether in the familiar post-Vietnam sense or in the harder-to-accept manner that the World War II experience led the boomers’ parents to lose authority over their kids.

Civil service, meanwhile, runs up against other difficulties. Especially in the technocratic, top-down form favored by Team McChrystal, national service might habituate us toward the kind of long-term thinking that the bipolar quality of hectic and lonely democratic life dangerously discourages. But it won’t draw us by the hundreds of millions into the face-to-face relationships we need to keep us from viewing our fellow Americans as hostile competitive strangers. National service doesn’t forge us in fellowship as a people. It doesn’t make us friends in forbearance. And in a political culture dominated by patronage and place-seeking, it could sometimes even deepen the error of our ways.

The wager of our elites isn’t that national service will save America by uniting the American people as fellows and not just citizens. It’s that they can create a bigger elite, one more capable of reaching down to organize the rest of us to get our acts together. Alas, without a renewed culture of friendship, we’ll continue to feel so hemmed in by our fellow Americans that big business and big government—no matter how big their leadership class—won’t do much more than make more of us into unhappy higher achievers. We can secure that cramped kind of character all by ourselves.