05/24/2013 12:10 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

The Whole of National Sacrifice

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In all the brouhaha over Benghazi, one thing seems to get less attention among all grandstanding and political posturing. Last September 11th, four public servants -- among them an ambassador -- died in the service of their country. At a quiet ceremony that hardly made news two weeks ago, the vice president and secretary of state honored them at a ceremony at the State Department that added their names to the 240 already on the plaque there. This weekend, the president is laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Nearly every TV station in America will make mention of it.

There's something wrong with this picture.

Since 9/11 and at the time of this writing, 6,692 U.S. military personnel have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Defense Casualty Analysis System. That includes 140 women, but does not include the number of suicides in the military, which now eclipses the total combat dead every year.

At the same time, according to the Department of Labor, about 1,500 civilian contractors never made it home alive, 44 alone in the first quarter of this year. Then there are the 1,000 or so fatalities among Americans serving in the U.N., NGOs, and civil society organizations trying to improve the lives of those living in those places.

Their numbers, indefinite as they are, may not sound like many, but proportionally they are higher than for the military, given that there are about 2 million in the active and reserve components, compared to about 25,000 of their civilian counterparts in the foreign and related civil services. In short, being a civilian in the service of your country in harm's way has been more dangerous than being a soldier.

The Peace Corps may be the most precise among civilian agencies. Since 1961, 287 of nearly 200,000 volunteers that have served in 139 countries have died in service to their country.

It's extremely difficult to obtain complete and accurate statistics on the number of U.S. civilians who have made the ultimate sacrifice abroad. The fact that we do not have those data at our fingertips -- let alone for the "collateral damage" caused in these conflicts -- is in and of itself a disturbing statement of our lack of appreciation for the sacrifices of all our public servants, as well as many more innocent civilians.

Congress should be demanding that kind of information and likewise acknowledging their sacrifice. Instead, many are playing political football with the circumstances that led to at least those killed in Benghazi. Sure, the same kind of thing happens at times with military casualties, but rarely to the extent seen in this latest case.

My guess is that if we held in reverence the sacrifices of civilians in the same way we do for the military, the politicization would be just a bit more tempered. An ambassador or an aid worker dying in the line of duty has given as much as a soldier falling in battle.

Many, including yours truly, are now arguing for a 21st century, whole-of-society national service system in one form or another. For it to work, however, it must inculcate a shared sense of responsibility, shared values, and shared costs. It's the sacrifice, after all, that qualifies the service and gives it value to one and many.

We have to clearly link sacrifice with service. Imagine Veteran's Day as National Service Day and Memorial Day including all who have fallen on behalf of their fellow citizens.

Indeed, democratizing service and sacrifice would revitalize the meaning of citizenship, regenerate the civil-military relationship, and introduce an inclusiveness to help us find a more common basis of strength in our dangerously divided nation. While we still may not respect each others opinions, at least we should respect each others commitment to community and country.

The whole of national service -- and sacrifice -- helps put the unum back into e pluribus unum, to ensure peace, security, and prosperity for uncertain futures.