E Pluribus Service

A few days after the death of five of his officers, Dallas police chief David Brown challenged civilians there to "be a part of the solution" and "serve your community."
08/23/2016 03:17 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2017

A few days after the death of five of his officers, Dallas police chief David Brown challenged civilians there to "be a part of the solution" and "serve your community." His suggestion, though not singular, may be a bellwether for something gaining ground all around the country - the idea that service to others, which doesn't require a uniform, brings people together.

For some time since 9/11, there's been talk of national service in one form or another to spread the burden beyond less than 2 percent of the population in uniform. Popular support for it is overwhelming. Demand for service opportunities is beginning to outstrip supply. Already the largest generational cohort, Millennials are also the most service-oriented. The sentiment of late, as one-time infantry officer Will Bardenwerper said in The Washington Post, is to encourage more Americans to "perform a mission focused on the collective good would bridge some of the divides that are weakening us as a country."

A mandatory or encouraged year of community, public, or national service is now under serious consideration by both parties in this year's election, thanks in good part to the prodding of retired Army general Stan McChrystal's coalition of organizations under the Service Year Alliance. Such a commitment to service, he exhorted in The Atlantic ,"teaches young Americans the habits of citizenship, and the power of working in teams to build trust is one of the most powerful ways this generation can help restore political and civic responsibility--and in the process help to heal a wounded nation."

But the benefits go well beyond this. Service to others helps a person by helping others, providing a sense of personal and collective identity not found in smart phones or social media - real, human connectivity in an alienated, narcissistic, and atomized society. Identity being values in action, it helps develop the internal moral GPS needed to navigate a complex, dynamically interconnected, and information congested world, discerning fact from fiction. All these make for a stronger, less manipulated, and more responsible citizenry only from which, as Jefferson envisioned, more accountable government comes.

It would also go far to make the country less vulnerable to mass media manipulation and the politics of fear and ignorance played out daily in the obsessive reality show of terrorism, distrust of police and other forms of government, and a culture of entitlement and impunity manifesting in everything from bad Olympian behavior abroad to proliferating acts of street violence at home. This does more than tarnish the national brand: America, after all, cannot long remain the land of the free if it is no longer the home of the brave.

A national narrative of service fosters a collaborative mindset, establishing real common ground for much-needed civil dialogue on matters inexplicable in 140 characters. A greater sense of empathy also goes far to close engagement gaps abroad for a neo-isolationist superpower that issues like climate change are compelling to get in the same global sandbox and play nice with others.

Besides revitalizing citizenship along the lines of thinking globally and acting locally, a more universal sense of service and sacrifice remedies an unwholesome civil-military relationship. Rather than slogans and bumper stickers, if civilians truly wish to honor veterans, police, firefighters, first responders and others in uniform who put their lives on the line on their behalf, then they should strive to make this a country worth the sacrifice of those they emulate much less than they admire. They need not go far, for there are myriad ways to become citizens as responsible to neighbors as to nation - patriotism being something you do and not just say.

But those giving back owe something to those paying it forward. "Our mission," I tell other veterans sharing a privileged place of veneration, "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." Such a dialogue fosters the passing of the baton of leadership to another generation in search of its own answer to what it means to be an American in today's world.

On a more practical side, as the National Service Ride project points out in its school presentations, service learning is where real education begins. Beyond enfranchising disconnected youth, it's the easiest way to obtain vital 21st century economic qualifications, among them team-playing, team-building, and team-leading along with interpersonal and problem-solving skills. It helps build the networks from which the majority of vocations are now found. Businesses now looking at labor more as an investment than a cost are seeking people of character, integrity, commitment, dedication, maturity, and reliability that only self-less service can engender. The implications of a better qualified work force for prosperity in general and a revitalized middle class in particular are enormous.

While more hands, hearts, and minds are needed for public and national service, most Americans can best serve their country by serving their community. It is, after all, it communities - not its capital - that makes the United States the exceptional country it is. Besides, as many organizations like the Alliance for Peacebuilding, TRENDS Global, and the UN Association well know, the dynamics of building peace and security as well as civil society and social resilience are the same over here as they are over there - whether with community policing, gender equality, race and religious relations, and so on.

The blessings of liberty ultimately come through inclusiveness and a sense of community fostered from and not despite diversity. This country's founders were well aware of this, going out of their way to make sure America works better from below than above. Its long-standing penchant for charity, volunteerism, and bottom-up change puts the United States in an ideal position to remain a world leader - morally and not just physically. And like charity, citizenship begins on the block. In today's world, you can go global by first going local.

Washington is not going to fix America; America is going to fix America. People here have more power to change their county than they may otherwise believe. The sooner enough of them act upon the common sense notion that they do better for themselves when they do better for each other, the country will again move forward in meaningful way. And they will find the "Unum" in E pluribus Unum.