General McChrystal Discusses His Call To Service in Boston

Retired General Stanley McChrystal discussing national service

Today I had a chance to join other AmeriCorps program leaders to talk with retired four star General Stanley McChrystal about his call for universal, voluntary national service. Gen. McChrystal (he insisted we call him Stan today, but I'm sticking with General here!) first began discussing this idea at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, where he noted the lack of shared sense of responsibility when less than 1% of the population has been on active duty during a period when our nation has fought two wars. As he said at today's event, "our sense of citizenship has weakened". Gen. McChrystal makes a compelling case that military service and civilian service through programs such as AmeriCorps are "two sides of the same coin," and that ramping up national civilian service can help reinstill a sense of common purpose.

McChrystal's call for voluntary, universal service might sound like an oxymoron at first, but it makes sense when you consider the approach. He and other leaders promoting the concept see that mandatory service is not likely to go far in today's political climate, but dramatically scaling up natonal service, building on successful models that already exist, is possible. If we can provide enough opportunities to serve, the many who are turned away from serving in AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps due to capacity limits, one can see how doing a year of service could become a new norm, a rite of passage alongside high school graduation. To quantify this "big idea" for large scale national service, McChrystal is calling for one million young adults serving per year, building upon the existing network of service programs. 

Not that Gen. McChrystal needed much convincing, but we heard a number of compelling stories from current national service members from around Massachusetts, who nicely covered the impact their service has for them personally as well as those they serve. Several participants at today's meeting, including one AmeriCorps member, also gave a strong voice to the importance of ensuring national service members recieve stipends sufficient to get by without savings or support from family. At the current levels, service is a privilege most readily available to those who have some such support to rely upon to get through year. Such issues will be important to factor in if an expanded national service is to achieve the goals of uniting our increasingly diverse nation behind a sense of common purpose and shared responsibility.

I noted that while the decentralized nature of today's national service network is beneficial in terms of responding to local needs, flexibility to innovate, etc.; we will need to strengthen the sense that all the various programs are ultimately part of one movement. I'd say providing greater intentionality to connecting the various members of the service network as well as articulating the shared service values that unite us are an important part of the picture.

I suspect it's no coincidence that some of the strongest voices for ramping up national service have a background in military service. Several times in the early days of AmeriCorps I had the chance to hear former Senator Harris Wofford, who led the Corporation for National Service for a number of years, draw connections between the unifying experience of military and the potential of national service to bring diverse Americans together. Today Gen. McChrystal commented that the "Great Generation" was not inherently service minded per se, but they developed the commitment to service during World War II, whether it be through serving in the militay abroad or working in factories and planting victory gardens at home. Service as a rite of passage in the twenty-first century has a similar unifying potential, McChrystal suggested.

This Huffington Post blog article and video provides more details on Gen. McChrystal's proposal for national service. The Aspen Institute Franklin Project has been created to organize the effort to promote this concept of major national service expansion. Today's gathering was hosted by City Year--no surprise, as its co-founders Michael Brown and Alan Khazei are working closely with Gen. McChrystal on the Franklin Project--and the Massachusetts Service Alliance, which coordinates AmeriCorps and other service programs across the state.