Over the past few years, every time I hear someone thank me for my military service, I've responded by asking that person about his or her career. Some tell me about their public service as police officers, firefighters, emergency responders, civil servants, teachers, and so on. Others tell me about their volunteer or charity work in their own communities. To which my response is: "Well, then, thank you for your service."
I've often received strange looks or a dismissal that it's not the same thing, as when Brian Lehrer interviewed earlier this year on his WYNC radio show, noting that he was not putting his physical life on the line. While that may be true, it does not diminish the importance of the deeds of journalists and others who conscientiously promote civil dialogue. "If you don't think that's important," I subtly reminded Lehrer of his duty in what was more commonly called the Fourth Estate, "then go to Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Somalia, and you'll see what happens when a country loses that."
"It's one thing to defend your country; it's another to have a country worth defending," I went on, relating the fundamental element of the civil-military compact in a democracy - the partnership between the citizen and the soldier, who my friend and fellow retired Army Special Operations Officer Wayne Long described as "the defender of the social contract of which he is also a stakeholder."
Nowadays the military is the most esteemed institution in this country, for one because many see soldiers as the ultimate public servants. That's a good thing, because it wasn't always true. Prior to World War II, the regular military was kept small in peacetime due to a more traditional distrust of a large standing army. Yet, inasmuch as Vietnam may have been a low point in our civil-military relations, we have swung to another, equally unhealthy extreme. The veneration and outright hero-worship of the military is an unhealthy distortion of the time-honored yet taken-for-granted civil-military clause in that social contract.
Too many of our political, economic, social, and media elites are unabashed in the use of patriotism as a prop in pursuit of their own agendas. To "support the troops" has become the contemporary equivalent of motherhood, apple pie, and kissing babies. Businesses of all kinds cash in on the good PR it generates (even though they still tend to hire proportionally fewer veterans). It has also led to the militarization of our foreign policy, given a society that perceives American power through a largely martial lens, obsessed with threats, and an ironically insular view of a world the United States has done more to globalize than anyone else.
The betrayal of American identity and base values over there stems from their betrayal over here. Even though most soldiers would rather be socialized than idolized, the social psychology of our civil-military apartheid is intrinsically undemocratic and elitist - exclusive, not inclusive. Our post-Vietnam decision to pay the economic rather than social costs of the historic anomaly of a large standing peacetime army has produced a highly professional but correspondingly disconnected warrior class that describes itself as "warfighters" rather than citizen-soldiers.
And the more disconnected they are, the more willing we are to employ this blunt instrument of policy in corrosively open-ended warfare against terrorism or for "humanitarian intervention." A national decision that once took a declaration of war or an act of Congress is now an Executive order authorizing a drone strike. It absolves us, as the Brookings Institute's Phil Klay lays out in his recent essay, of the moral dilemmas and public debates essential to defining the political parameters on the use of force on our behalf.
But this a matter of failed citizenship as it is failed politics. We don't have to wait to see whom we elect to the highest offices in the land this fall to start to fix this or many other problems in this country. As a former citizen-soldier, it's clear to me that a more universal sense of service would make more of us better citizens of a better nation, better able to face the complex and pervasive challenges of our day.
The national mythology that summons our psychic as well as physical energies to face them should champion role models from all walks of life and every corner of our country, tapping the essential strengths and comparative advantages of a diverse society bonded under the exceptional rubric of e pluribus unum. The heroes we revere reflect the values that brand us as a people - but we don't need to wait for them to show up. We can find them ourselves, because they are already among us.
It's one reason why my National Service Ride presentations at high schools start by thanking all of the members of the community present for their service - especially the public educators, whose role in shaping every citizen in this country to be everything from presidents to corporate CEOs to soldiers, now more than ever, is indispensable to the strength and security of our republic. Then we call to the stage exemplars of service from that community to explain to the less initiated what service has done for them as well as others.
Setting it up this way goes beyond promoting unity rather than division. It enables an inclusive generational process of passing the baton of leadership to prepare the next cohort of Americans to take their own journey in finding their answer to the question of who we are and what we're about.
As I explained to organizers of the annual Rolling Thunder ride, "It's great we veterans get together every year, three or four hundred thousand of us, every Memorial Day weekend in Washington, get thanked for our service, and then go home. But what happens after that? What happens after we die?"
"Our mission," I concluded, "is not complete until we've explained to our youth what service and sacrifice has meant to us. What they do with our hard-earned wisdom is up to them, but this much at least we owe them."
That's why I've organized the National Service Ride - a motorcycle tour around the country this fall to connect us up around a more positive, constructive dialogue across multi-sectoral lines and to promote better citizenship, service, and social responsibility in and beyond America.
By encouraging and empowering not just young people to do good work and show how service to others benefits everyone including themselves, as well as identify clear pathways to service learning, the growing number of people in our country looking for more meaning to their lives become better Americans and persons.
And when we become better citizens, we become a better country - because, when you serve your community, you serve your country. Our long-standing penchant for charity, volunteerism, and bottom-up change is one of the things that has made the United States a great country. And like charity, citizenship begins on the block.
If Americans truly wish to honor veterans and so many others in public service, in and out of uniform, who have given the last full measure of devotion, then they should strive to make this a country worth their sacrifice. The best way to honor them is to be citizens as responsible to our neighbors as to our nation, because they are one and the same. Only united can we stand.
In my book Travels with Harley - Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity, I recalled a conversation with Joey, one of our doormen at the apartment complex I lived in on the Jersey City waterfront not long after 9/11 as I was preparing to deploy the Civil Affairs battalion I commanded to Iraq. Being a good citizen was the greatest thing he could do to help us and his country, I told him. That meant three things: exercising your most basic civic responsibility in voting; informing yourself about the world around you; and doing some kind of community service.
"What you do over here makes a big difference to what we do over there," I said.
Joey later found volunteer work with the ambulance corps. That's because he came to understand something more of us should - that patriotism isn't flag-waving, bumper stickers, or social media posts. That's self-service, not self-sacrifice. Patriotism isn't something you feel; it's something you do.