12/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Unarmed Services

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a retired general. He gave me a gift that I hardly expected and heartily accepted: the option of patriotism. Of course, neither generals nor anyone else has the power to bestow or withhold the "patriot" title. However, this particular general spoke passionately about America's greatness in terms of what all Americans - service members and civilians alike - have to offer the United States. Anyone can make this argument, but when it comes from a man who dedicated his life to military service, it resonates more deeply.

The conversation centered around the idea that a patriot uses his or her unique skills to make America a better place. In this sense, it doesn't matter what those skills are. Some have a gift for teaching, while others understand science with ease. Some have a knack for art, while some are natural-born leaders. When we put our skills to use in the service of American ideals - whether it's protecting free speech or protecting our borders - we all get to claim the mantle of patriotism.

This is good new for civilians. I've never served in the military and it's unlikely I ever will. But I am proud of my country, and I want to believe that whatever skills I possess can be used to right what's wrong and protect what's right in the United States. Hence the notion of the unarmed services. The unarmed services is not an institution - obviously - but a shorthand for civilians who work, act, and live so as to honor American traditions and values. Nor is it a new idea. It's as old as American history.

Who counts as a member of the unarmed services? Labor leaders and union members certainly belong. Between 1877 and 1947, more than 1,000 Americans lost their lives while advocating workers' rights. Civil rights activists deserve to be counted as well. From abolitionists in the 19th century to activists in the 1960s, many citizens died in the effort to fulfill the promise that "all men are created equal." Aid workers who travel to the world's most dangerous regions to provide humanitarian relief also take tremendous risks - and more than fifty of them have lost their lives this year as a consequence.

The defenders of first amendment freedoms must be included as members of the unarmed services, too. Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was beheaded in Pakistan in 2002, is a perfect example of how one's desire to inform the public can lead to the worst of tragedies. In exposing the story of how Maryland police classified 53 nonviolent activists as terrorists, a Washington Post reporter did a great service to American freedom, as did the activists who were exercising their right to peaceful protest. The evangelical Christian who preaches in public places honors both freedom of speech and freedom of religion, as does the atheist who resists state-sanctioned prayer. The list could go on and on.

While the armed services protect us from outside threats, the unarmed services protect us from a great internal threat: our own government. The Founding Fathers believed that power corrupted the powerful, and they enshrined that belief in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That the U.S. government has never descended into tyranny is a testament to the rights the Founders handed down to us and Americans' insistence on enjoying those rights. That's what made the Cold War, for instance, worth fighting. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had strong militaries. But only the U.S. military was fighting to defend a country whose government allowed its citizens to criticize the political leadership, worship freely, and speak their minds.

Yet these rights mean nothing unless Americans actually use them. Politicians will always reach for more power. Only an active citizenry can curb that impulse through debate and dissent. That's why the concept of the unarmed services is so important to our understanding of patriotism. Exercising our rights carries on the vision of the Founders, and it honors the service men and women who put their lives on the line to protect that vision. In other words, it's patriotism through and through.

Over the course of American history, more than one million service members have lost their lives in war time. Few civilians are ever called upon to make the same sacrifice, which is why we rightly afford greater respect to those who serve in uniform. This explains my appreciation for the retired general. He explicitly recognized that I, too, had something to offer my country. And I can think of no better way to express my gratitude for his thoughtfulness and his service than to invoke my right to free speech and tell you all about it.