A Call for Universal National Service This Veteran's Day

If every American were called to service, we’d be likely to approach one another as citizens.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014

From 1919 to 1953, November 11th was known as Armistice Day; so this week marks the sixtieth anniversary of what we now know as Veterans Day. When President Eisenhower issued a proclamation announcing the change to “Veterans Day” in October 1954, it was more than a nominal one: he called for a remembrance, but he also issued a challenge:

 “On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly....and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace...In order to insure proper and widespread observance of this anniversary, all veterans, all veterans’ organizations, and the entire citizenry will wish to join hands in the common purpose.”

So, Veterans Day is really about three things: it is about solemn remembrance for all of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines; it is about actively creating a world where peace might endure; and it is about common purpose as citizens.

President Eisenhower called us to remember, but also to hold ourselves responsible. Today, we hand out a lot of “thank-you’s for your service,” but do very little to honor that service by forging a culture united in common cause.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, the authors of For Love of Country, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, wrote about the problem with our approach to veterans today. They write: “After World War II, even if your veteran neighbor wandered the street at night, agitated with shell shock, you knew that other veterans were going to be just fine. You knew this because you knew them — because your father, sons and brothers had served.” Today, we either pity our veterans as victims or we exalt them as heroes; we rarely approach them as citizens.

 

A young man with short brown hair wearing a green dress shirt standing beside a young man with short blond hair wearing a blue dress shirt, both with arms around each other, in front of a cream background.

 

[From Left to Right: Blog Authors Jason Mangone and MacKenzie Moritz]

One of the authors of this article is a Marine veteran; the other is a Teach For America alumnus. At first glance, the two of us have very little in common. One of us is from Jersey; the other from the Florida panhandle. One of us went to a Catholic high school and college; the other went to public high school and then his state’s college. One of us eats bacon and eggs every morning; the other is a vegan when his wife’s looking. One of us is impatient to make decisions; the other is more discerning.

And yet, we define ourselves by our common service, rather than by our comparatively petty differences. That’s because we both know what it means to devote ourselves to a higher cause; we both know what it is to get up early and struggle to make something work; we’re both ceaselessly nostalgic for that time when we had such a sense of purpose; and we both know the biggest secret of all: that service is a privilege, so to be thanked for it always seems silly, and often feels patronizing.

We think that the only way to honor the true spirit of Veteran’s Day—the only way to solemnly remember, to unite in common cause, and to strive for enduring peace—is to call every American to national service. A service year – whether through the military or programs like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps – shouldn’t be mandatory, but expected, for every young person at some point between the ages of 18 and 28. We work for an organization, the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute, that strives to make universal national service a new American institution and civic rite of passage.

If every American were called to a year of service, we’d be likelier to approach one another as citizens. We’d be likelier to define ourselves by our common past than by our disparate circumstances. And through the impact of an army of full-time service members, we’d be helping communities while building character in our young people.

We’ll always solemnly remember our warriors on November 11th. But President Eisenhower called “the entire citizenry to grasp hands in the common purpose.” So, rather than meek thank you’s, we envision a world where any two citizens—regardless of background—can look each other in the eye, shake hands, and know that no matter how different they might appear, they’re on equal footing because they both served.

Jason Mangone is the Director of the Franklin Project and served as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps from 2006-2010.

MacKenzie Moritz is the Associate Director for Strategic Partnerships at the Franklin Project and served as corps member in Teach For America from 2006-2008. As a corps member, he taught 9th grade world history in Southwest Philadelphia. 

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