National Service

Beyond the Commitment and Sacrifice of our Military: National Civilian Service

November 12, 2014  • Stephen J. Hadley

This Veterans Day we honor and thank all those who served in our nation's military and the family and friends who supported them. We remember in particular those who made the ultimate sacrifice and those who bear the scars and wounds of war.

The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has been the foundation for American leadership in the world. That world still needs American leadership. But that leadership does not just require a strong armed forces. Our country also needs the commitment and sacrifice from those serving outside the military. And it needs to develop and nurture a culture of service — where service becomes the norm rather than the exception.

I have spent most of my career brokering peace from the top down, from the vantage points of governments, and often involving the U.S. military.

In today's world with shifts in the nature of conflict, however, there is an enormous opportunity to help construct peace from the bottom up. Such efforts require the contribution of civilian organizations often working side by side with our military. As a country, we have spent billions of dollars on our military making sure it is and remains the best in the world. But we have not made a comparable investment in the civilian capabilities that are needed to address current challenges around the globe.

The solutions to the national security challenges our nation faces today — and the unforeseen challenges of the future — will often have a military element. But we will not be able to solve them by military means alone. Whether it be facing the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or strengthening failing states or dealing with rising powers like China or confronting diseases such as Ebola, American power and leadership is going to require the support of civilian capabilities.

For example, if we are able successfully to make gains against the Islamic State, we are then going to need to help the Iraqis and the Syrians (as well as the Libyans and the Tunisians) to build secure, peaceful societies that provide jobs, economic growth and a better life for their people. It is in our interest to provide this assistance. If we do not do so, the Middle East will be a recruiting and training ground for terrorists for decades to come.

When our nation has faced such challenges in the past, we have looked to the civilian departments and agencies of the federal government. Because of our national under-investment in these civilian skills, often our federal governmental efforts have been inadequate for the task. We have also failed to mobilize the resources of our state and local governments.

But government is not the only — and in many cases, is not the best source of these skills. And unfortunately we have not in the past mobilized the various non-governmental sources of these civilian skills such as our business, non-government organizations, civil society, universities, charitable foundations, and the voluntary sector. People drawn from these sources could contribute mightily to the bottom-up efforts to help the people in the Middle East. Expanding national service opportunities in these areas could be a way to help identify, develop, and train this pool of social talent that we will need to meet many of the global challenges we face.

We also need these same civilian capabilities to address the challenges we face here at home — serving our country and investing in America's future. We need an America where all of us recognize the problems our country faces and seek paths of service from which to help generate solutions.

At present, however, there simply are not enough full-time service opportunities to meet this demand particularly among the Millennial generation. AmeriCorps, for example, gets approximately 580,000 applications for only 80,000 slots. Hundreds of thousands of Americans who step up to serve are turned away. Teach for America receives ten applications for every one position available. Only one in three Peace Corps applicants have the opportunity to serve.

There is an initiative underway to create a culture of service here at home and expand the opportunities to serve. The mission of the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute is to focus on the civilian side of the service equation by making the idea of a "service year" a cultural expectation and a common rite of passage for young people. Retired general Stanley McChrystal and a group of leaders from a variety of fields have come together to support making national service a common expectation and opportunity for all 18-28 year olds. Many military leaders and others who have served our nation have shown support for this idea in various ways. There are a number of veterans on the Franklin Project Leadership Council and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute has also cosponsored a pledge entitled "Enlisting America: A Call to National Service from Those Who Have Served." The pledge was signed in partnership with several veteran organizations and retired military service members.

America continues to have the strongest military in the world. And our nation will continue to honor our men and women in uniform. But if we are really serious about honoring their sacrifice, we will expand the concept of national service. We will create the expectation and opportunity for all Americans to serve our country and help it meet our many challenges at home and abroad. Making America a nation of national service would be truly transformational — and a fitting way to honor our veterans.