Step Up for Your Country

By McChrystal, Stanley | Newsweek, January 31, 2011 | Go to article overview

Step Up for Your Country


McChrystal, Stanley, Newsweek


The general who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan makes the case for national service and the 'basic responsibilities of being an American.'

Standing recently in new haven's small train station, I was approached by a stranger who thanked me for my service. His gratitude was clearly genuine--and I deeply appreciated it.

During my years in uniform (particularly after 9/11), and even in the months since my retirement, I was routinely thanked for serving. For service members today, that experience is common--a thoughtful gesture that has done much to maintain the morale of a force that performs so bravely for our nation.

Common--but thanking Americans for their service is not common enough. Nor can it be, because Americans performing critical, selfless service to our country are less common than they must be.

We have let the concept of service become dangerously narrow, often associated only with the military. This allows most Americans to avoid the sense of responsibility essential for us to care for our nation--and for each other. We expect and demand less of ourselves than we should.

And now it is time to fix it.

"Service member" should not apply only to those in uniform, but to us all.

The concept of national service is not new, nor is it outdated. When America needs it, national service is the personal obligation of every American. And she needs it now.

All of us bear an obligation to serve--an obligation that goes beyond paying taxes, voting, or adhering to the law. America is falling short in endeavors that occur far away from any battlefield: education, science, politics, the environment, and cultivating leadership, among others.

Without a sustained focus on these foundations of our society, America's long-term security and prosperity are at risk.

We live in a nation of rights, and jealously defend them.

Thomas Jefferson drew upon the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment's finest minds to articulate the concept of "inalienable rights" in defining the essential freedoms guaranteed to Americans in the new republic.

Those rights are sacred. We fought a war to make the Declaration's statement of rights a reality, and have sacrificed since to defend them.

But as important as those inalienable rights are, there are also inalienable responsibilities that we must accept and fulfill. Those responsibilities are wider than are often perceived or accepted. Just as we have allowed the term "service member" to apply solely to the military, we have allowed the obligations of citizenship to narrow.

Even the most basic responsibilities of being an American are considered optional by many. In the seeming anonymity of modern life, the concept of community responsibility has weakened, yet is needed more than ever.

Responsibility is most easily accepted when the need is clear and expectations are defined by tradition.

I saw this up close in Afghanistan. In a harsh environment, agriculture long functioned and flourished through the use of ingenious irrigation systems, often employing extensive and complex underground tunnels called karez that moved water to where it was needed.

Because the systems were essential, yet required manpower-intensive upkeep, maintenance was clearly understood to be a responsibility of the community, performed as a shared task without pay.

The shared responsibility served to unify the community. The Soviet intervention in 1979 resulted in damage to the systems; subsequently, private individuals acquired wells and pumps, disrupting the community dynamic. What had been a unifying responsibility for all was now a source of wealth for a few--and yet another source of frustration for the rest.

discussions of national service typically stall in the transition from general concepts to specific recommendations--because that's when it gets hard.

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