11/11/2011 11:30 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2012

National Service Day

For particularly the last 10 years of my military career, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I admit one of the things I enjoyed was the unsolicited recognition received from people all over the country, whenever I was in uniform. What struck me was, almost every time, they would say the same thing: "Thank you for your service," to which quite a few would add: " our country."

Nowadays, the military is the most respected -- indeed, revered -- institution in our society. However, that wasn't always true. 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, so while the military may have been respected by a fair number of Americans, its presence in the social and political consciousness of the nation was minor.

Then there was Vietnam. I remember my uncle returning home from the war to a chorus of protestors calling him and his kind "baby killers." To this day, I go out of my way to thank a Vietnam veteran for his or her service, because, unlike for me, they did not come home to a grateful nation, even though their sacrifices, in many ways, were greater than mine and their cause was no more or less noble. Fortunately, the American people have progressed to a mature understanding of the difference between policy and politicians and those sent out to execute it.

Perhaps it's time for us to move on again. The veneration and outright hero-worship, now at a crescendo, is an unhealthy distortion of our time-honored yet taken-for-granted civil-military relationship, for a number of reasons. The evidence of this is, with the exception of firefighters and police, is in the popularity of the military, hovering between the 70th and 80th percentiles, in reverse proportion to how Americans feel about other public servants, especially politicians, or corporate or financial executives. The reasons for the loss of love for the latter notwithstanding, it risks (as we have already seen to some extent) the politicization of an institution that should remain apolitical, as "support of the troops" has become today's version of kissing babies as well as a quick and easy way to demonstrate patriotism. Businesses are also cashing in on it big time.

But over time, it has also lent to a psychology of greater readiness to call upon the military in the pursuit of our national interests abroad, or to perform tasks, such as humanitarian or disaster relief or nation-building -- contributing to the "militarization" of our foreign policy and the "securitization" of foreign assistance. We have even seen a greater presence of the National Guard in our relief responses at home, despite the intent of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. Another is the perpetuation of a military industrial complex that is now a detriment to our prosperity and which we can less afford.

Before we can move on, though, it may make sense to consider first: Why all the near-deification, at this time in our history? Obviously, one reason is the palpable threat that many Americans have felt in their own homeland since 9/11, although this may be dissipating for the time being since the death of bin Laden. More enduring, perhaps, is that the military lifestyle is the most outstanding model of a service ethic in America which has growing appeal -- soldiers voluntarily place themselves (or avail themselves to be placed) in harm's way, in relative discomfort, and in long separation from loved ones.

The other is the commitment to shared values, as exemplified by those in the Army learn and live: "Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage." These two factors are enormously compelling in society with an abundance of moral relativism and complexity, and where such sacrifice for the greater good has been made only by a tiny minority (I recall here a picture of a whiteboard in a Marine barracks, in a re-buff of Bush's claim that America was a "nation at war," which read: "America is not at war; the Marines are at war; America is at the mall").

But, before the inevitable de-mystification comes (and we risk going to some other extreme), it would seem prudent to capitalize on both the military role model as well as the re-surging service ethic in America, evinced by the near tripling of volunteerism in the United States, especially among the younger generation. We have an opportunity to transition the meaning of national service to one which is more inclusive, as well as more relevant to a 21st century reality of security that is both more globalized and humanized, synonymous with prosperity and collective well-being.

We have to come to a similarly expanded understanding of national service. There are many ways to serve your country, other than wearing a uniform. We have thousands of civil servants, for example, who go abroad to represent our country and implement our assistance to other peoples. Some, like soldiers, have given their lives in the performance of their duties.

My older sister, as a registered nurse who helps geriatrics through the winter of their lives, is serving her country. Similarly, my mother's friend, a hospice worker who helps people to find dignity in their last days and hours, is serving her country.

My younger sister, as a professional housewife and mother who devotes herself to bringing two well-adjusted human beings into our society, is serving her country. My old high school teacher, now retired from helping scores of young people find their own paths as individuals contributing to their communities, has served his country.

The increasingly vast number of volunteers, such as those working in kitchens providing meals this Thanksgiving and the Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells in front of the stores this holiday season are also serving their country.

That is because, whenever you are doing something, especially directly, to help make the lives of other persons better, you are serving your country. In an interconnected world, when you serve your community, you serve your country. Our longstanding sense of charity and humanity -- particularly outside of the government -- is one of the things that have made us a great country. And, in the 21st century, that is more essential than ever. Not just because it makes us a better example to others in the world and helps restore our all-important moral credibility, but most importantly, because it makes us better examples to ourselves. Citizenship is not residence, and patriotism isn't something you feel or put on a bumper sticker -- it's something you do, for others.

We need to democratize -- and to some extent de-militarize -- our national service ethic. Some have talked about some kind of national service bill along more universal lines than just military service. That has plusses and minuses. National service, one would hope, shouldn't be mandated because, like military service nowadays, it is far more powerful and authentic when performed willingly.

One thing, though, the government can do to help engender a new social consciousness is update national holidays like Veterans Day (which used to be Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I). It can transform Veterans Day into National Service Day to honor those who have served their country by serving others, at home and abroad. In turn, it could revise Memorial Day to honor all those in government service -- and not just the military -- who have fallen in the service of their country.

It seems to me, as a former citizen-soldier, that a revitalized sense of national service makes us better citizens of a better nation among nations.

And to all of those who already live in that world: Thank you for your service.