Thirteen years ago today, we missed an opportunity. Prior to 9/11, our reaction to national emergency had been national service. Regrettably, the reaction to our last great national emergency has been a decade-plus of war devoid of any collective responsibility as citizens. In the wake of 9/11, after patting ourselves on the back for coming together, our leaders asked us politely to give a little bit of time: a day of service, an hour here and there. Such service is nice, but it's not sufficient.
We've grown accustomed to symbols of service, without making the sacrifices that service once required: the yellow ribbon, the somber piece on a weekly news magazine, and the social media tribute have replaced what was once a shared sense of accomplishment rooted in hard work. This isn't because young people don't want to serve. Far more young men and women enter military recruitment centers than are eligible for military service. Civilian national service programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America always have far more applicants than spots. Rather, a failure of political leadership has been at the core of this missed opportunity. Our leaders have grown afraid of demanding more than what we -- the constituents -- deem immediately convenient for ourselves.
In the past, in the wake of national emergency, our leaders have both exhorted Americans to serve, and provided real opportunities to do so. In cases where the country instituted conscription, there was legal recourse for avoiding service.
Of course, prior national emergencies such as the attack on Pearl Harbor required conscription for practical reasons. We were engaged in total war with nation-states. Military technology was simpler, and so it was easier to get a large amount of people up to speed quickly on our weapons systems. The materiel required to wage such wars meant mobilizing our entire private sector to support the war effort. Though universal national service wasn't technically necessitated in the wake of 9/11, the failure to implement such a system overlooked the moral aspects of large-scale service.
Conscription had cultural benefits beyond military necessity. It forced national cohesion, and forged a longer-lasting sense that we were all a part of something bigger than ourselves. When service to country becomes the realm of a protected, and revered, class, it can lead to cultural decay. Wars can become protracted. "Normal" people can go on living their lives as if everything is okay. When that protected servant class re-enters "normal" life, it can be difficult to bridge the experiential divide between those who have served and those who haven't. It amounts to a politically-sanctioned cultural cancer of apathy.
Half-measures like "days of service" are important in context, but are mere band-aids that will never truly cure the problem. Especially in response to national emergency, we need mechanisms that call Americans to full-time service. Such service would solve pressing problems and hold up the vitality and cohesion of our civil society in the long-term wake of crisis. Though it seems preposterous in an era when we are rarely challenged by our political leaders, the only honest response to national emergency is universal national service.
Those of us who have served our country in uniform since 9/11 are often considered heroes. The truth is, very few of us are. But, if we are heroes, then so is every teacher, firefighter, EMT, foreign service officer, intelligence officer, Peace Corps Volunteer and AmeriCorps corps-member.
We need to create a culture where every young person is called to perform such broadly-defined national service full-time for at least a year. Those who perform such service should receive employment incentives, academic credit to subsidize the cost of tuition, and some sort of tax benefit. More importantly, we will have enabled a culture of deeper empathy through service and shared sacrifice. Those who don't perform such service, in addition to potential sanctions, would be viewed as outcasts.
Getting there will require true leadership: painting a vision and dragging people along to a place they need to be, but didn't realize they wanted to go. It will require political leadership less interested in making people feel righteous and more interested in challenging people to take on a difficult task -- a duty -- that is enriching, even if it is not yet viewed as being in a young person's well-laid path to success.
The national response to 9/11 was fleeting patriotism that has faded to an annual remembrance after a decade of war and a world of confusion. This is a far cry from the bold calls to action -- and the subsequent pride and nostalgia -- that were a result of our past national emergencies. The source of our national pride was our common service, and it's something we can achieve again, if only our leaders are bold enough.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute, in conjunction with both 9/11 (designated a national day of service & remembrance) and the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps (9/12). The Franklin Project envisions a future in which a year of full-time national service -- a service year -- is a cultural expectation, a common opportunity, and a civic rite of passage for every young American. The Franklin Project is chaired by General Stanley McChrystal. To learn more about The Franklin Project, watch this video.