11/11/2013 10:39 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

From Veteran's Day to National Service Day

By Veteran's Day next year, all but a few American troops in Afghanistan will have withdrawn. The fifth major defense drawdown since World War II will be in full swing - and it may go further and last longer than previous reductions. As explained before, a well-managed drawdown presents many opportunities for defense sector reform and greater efficiencies, as well as tempering the "militarization" of foreign policy and reducing the temptation to go too quickly to military options in situations as just seen with Syria. While this kind of quantitative easing will go far to reducing the intensity of such imbalances, it alone will not guarantee any of the larger, more desirable outcomes. Most of all, it will not adequately address more serious disparities in the civil-military relationship in the United States. We need something more than paring the Pentagon.

Those especially in defense who contend we have no civil-military problem may themselves be depicting the disconnectedness. It goes beyond the "principal-agent problem" between authority and expertise that those in the policy wonk world have brought up. The problem is societal, more along the lines of Tom Ricks' comment that Americans "tend to venerate the military these days unthinkingly and that's not good for the military or the country."

The greatest danger of the outsized adoration of our armed forces is that it is intrinsically undemocratic and elitist - exclusive, not inclusive. Our decision in the 1970s to pay the economic rather than social costs of the historical anomaly of large, standing peacetime army resulted in an increasingly professional but correspondingly disconnected warrior class. And the more disconnected they are from us, the greater we - in the form of government elites who for the most part have also never served in uniform - are willing to use them. It explains a lot of why we now find ourselves in an era of perpetual warfare.

This professional military, in turn, has learned to talk less about "citizen-soldiers" and more about "warfighters." Even now, the Pentagon is hardly taking the obviously huge potential benefits of relying more seriously on the Reserves - and it won't unless we tell it to.

Moreover, our culture has militarized considerably since Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex - and civilians, not the armed services, have been the principal reason. From lawmakers' constant use of "support the troops" to justify defense spending, to TV programs and video games like NCIS, Homeland and Call of Duty, to NBC's unreal reality show Stars Earn Stripes and military displays at sports events, Americans are subjected to a daily diet of stories that valorize the military which the political, economic, and media elites exploit to pursue their own agendas. "Support the troops" has become the contemporary version of kissing babies.

Particularly since 9/11, the armed forces have been the subject of anonymous admiration for things seen only in films and video games. As for West Point professor Elizabeth Samet, the catechistic utterances of "thank you for your service" struck me as odd - a "mantra of atonement" - when I wore the uniform. Driving this, however, is more than the residual collective guilt from the Vietnam era, from which Americans have progressed to a mature understanding of the difference between policy and those sent out to execute it. The proliferation of these slogans and other gestures reflect the gap between what many civilians admire about the military and what they are willing to do themselves.

This not only explains the bumper-sticker patriotism we've witnessed since 9/11, when the president told "a nation at war" to go shopping, inspiring a viral picture of a barracks whiteboard that read: "America is not at war; the Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall." It also explains why especially the Army, with the brunt of combat casualties and the most difficulty meeting recruiting goals, targeted parents more than kids in their ads or raised the recruitment age to 42 even in a slow economy in which the unemployment rate for veterans has run higher than for the rest of us.

It's also explains the launch of initiatives like the Wounded Warrior Project, less because "the greatest casualty is being forgotten" than because the Veteran's Administration that should be taking care of them in the first place has been under-resourced.

This civil-military gap has also prompted private or public-private initiatives like The Mission Continues and Joining Forces, headed by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, to help veterans find their way back into civil society. Yet, as Samet pointed out: "The successful reincorporation of veterans into civil society entails a complex, evolving process. Today, the soldier's homecoming has been further complicated by the absence of a draft, which removes soldiers from the cultural mainstream, and by the fact that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have little perceptible impact on the rhythms of daily life at home."

In other words: Soldiers would rather be socialized than idolized.

Such reverence for the military - or more specifically, for those in the military - is an anomaly in the history of the United States. Prior to World War II, the military was kept traditionally small in peacetime. While the military may have been respected by many Americans, its presence in the social and political consciousness of the nation was minor. No doubt the hero-worship will normalize, but perhaps in an overcorrection. The higher the pedestal you build for these people, the farther they could eventually fall.

It's time for us to move on again, but in a different way.

Most of the discussion about national service has been about somehow bringing back the draft. Rep. Charlie Rangel has introduced bills to reinstate the draft among a growing list of initiatives since 9/11. Some, as in Tom Ricks' proposal, give options for conscientious objectors. Both want a "21st-century version of the draft" that includes the whole of American society. It would still be a matter of choice, as Ricks explained. And it would have to provide more avenues for service outside the government.

Time magazine's 2007 edition on "The Case for National Service" sparked today's much wider national debate perpetuated in part by Service Nation, a coalition of 110 organizations inspired to "working towards the day when a year in a national service program like AmeriCorps is a common expectation for Americans, and when national service is universally accepted as a strategy for putting people to work, tackling pressing social challenges and uniting Americans in common purpose."

The First Couple, in turn, has also supported United We Serve [], led by the Corporation for National and Community Service, linking service at home and abroad and encouraging Americans to serve in organizations - other than the military and the foreign and civil services - like AmeriCorps, CitizenCorps, Learn and Serve America, the Peace Corps, Senior Corps, and Volunteers for Prosperity.

Although polls continue to show low support for bringing back the draft, volunteerism has nearly tripled over the past decade or so. Private volunteerism is so high, to a great extent, because confidence in public institutions is so low. But this is nonetheless good news, because some kind of national service bill will eventually come to pass.

Before that happens, however, it would seem prudent to capitalize on both the military role model and a re-surging public service ethic among Americans by creating a moral frame of reference that recognizes the service and sacrifice of all public servants. We need to democratize - and to some extent de-militarize - our national service ethos. The best way we can, in the long run, support, take care of and honor the troops is to make sure they are among us and not apart from us.

One thing we can do to help engender this new collective consciousness is to update Veterans Day (which used to be Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I) by transforming it into National Service Day to honor those who have served their country by serving others, at home and abroad, in public service institutions as those mentioned above.

Our challenges are whole-of-society and global. The national mythology that summons our energies to face them should likewise champion role models from all walks of life and every corner of our country. The heroes we revere reflect the values that brand us as a people.

A 21st century sense of national service, imbued in such a national day of remembrance, would facilitate sharing common values, having a connective effect. A shared sense of duty comes from a sense of responsibility to each other in all ways and at all levels. In an interconnected world, when you serve your community, you serve your country.

Shared values also come from shared cost. We have to clearly link sacrifice with service because it's the sacrifice that qualifies the service. We lose more cops and firefighters in America each year than troops abroad, likewise in the name of public security, or more Peace Corps volunteers proportionally in the line of duty on behalf of our national values. We need to pay a lost diplomat or aid worker as much reverence as we do to a soldier falling in battle. We should therefore accordingly revise Memorial Day (which started as Decoration Day for only Union soldiers killed in battle) to honor all those in public service, at home or abroad, who have fallen in the service of their communities and country.

Besides helping to revitalize the meaning of citizenship, democratizing national service and sacrifice will do more than restore the civil-military relationship in America. Transforming these holidays to a greater level of inclusiveness will help us find a basis of strength and unity in our unusually and dangerously divided nation. It will help put the unum back into e pluribus unum. While we still may not respect each other's opinions, at least we should respect each other's commitment to community and country.

Such an initiative would also be a start in restoring a bit of public faith in government. National Service Day is an idea whose time has finally come, that both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue can get their heads and their hands around, and a demonstration that they can actually do something meaningful and beyond the scope of their politics.

A comprehensive ethos of national service also makes us better citizens of a better nation among nations, tempering our narcissist tendencies. While it makes us a better example to others in the world and helps restore our all-important moral credibility, it most importantly makes us better examples to ourselves.

Just cutting the defense budget and rebalancing to the Reserves will go only so far to make us stronger, more secure, and most of all freer. Institutionalizing national service and sacrifice will help restore enduring national strengths. As Lincoln admonished: "Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure." That's true for all of the people all of the time and not just some of the people some of the time.