In his televised speech about America's response to ISIS last week, President Obama laid out a new strategy, continuing the recent tradition of taking the nation to war without asking much of its citizens. As with our engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, our military bears risk (with or without "boots on the ground") and the rest of us watch it on TV. We are asked to contribute little and sacrifice nothing. It was not always so.
During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt told the nation war was expensive and everyone had to pay higher taxes and accept lower profits: "There is one front and one battle where everyone in the United States -- every man, woman, and child -- is in action ... right here at home, in our daily lives, in our daily tasks. Here at home, everyone will have the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary, not only to supply our fighting men, but to keep the economic structure of our country fortified and secure during the war and after the war. This will require, of course, the abandonment not only of luxuries but of many other creature comforts." He specifically called for higher taxes, rent ceilings, commodity rationing and other measures.
Churchill promised "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." JFK reminded us that the role of citizens is to "ask what you can do for your country."
In seizing the opportunity to rally support for deploying air power, President Obama missed an opportunity to rally support for other assets to make America stronger within as well as without. Congress has too.
Projecting strength requires having it. Ours has diminished. Our military might is preeminent, but 46.5 million Americans are on food stamps and half of them are children. Last year, one in five high school students did not graduate on time with their peers. And one in four African Americans still attend high school where graduating is not the norm. Hunger and obesity take a terrible toll. Youth unemployment is 13.6 percent.
Counter-terrorism experts believe a lengthy struggle with extremists could take generations. We can't have a strong America tomorrow without strong kids today, children who are healthy, fit, educated and safe. Increased investment in our children yields high national security returns.
In the wake of ISIS atrocities, every American wishes there were a way to make a difference. There is. Whether setting up a summer meals site or tutoring a child, there's a role for everyone with a strength to share. A citizen army of nonprofits like ours, City Year, Communities In Schools, KaBoom, Teach for America, Citizen Schools and others make America stronger by making our kids stronger.
Not having as much faith in citizens' collective impact as in soldiers' military impact is a failure of imagination we can't afford in a world that's grown as dangerous as ours. Our leaders need to ask more of us, not less. Every day at Share Our Strength, with each new volunteer, organizer, donation, breakfast challenge, Cooking Matters Tour, tweet, or meet-up, we find Americans waiting and ready to serve.
A clarion call to action would find more even strength to be deployed.