The pandemic we’re coming out of is presenting us an opportunity to rethink how we can relate to each other than in Zoom meetings and social media memes. One of the more encouraging things to see is our expanding understanding of service and sacrifice beyond those in the armed forces.
Since especially 9/11, the military has been the most respected institution in our society. That wasn’t always true. Such reverence has been more an exception than the rule in our history. Prior to World War II, our armed forces were traditionally kept small in peacetime. So, the military’s presence in our social and political consciousness was relatively minor.
Then came the divisiveness of Vietnam, from which we gained a more mature appreciation of the difference between those who make policy and those who execute it. In a similar sign of growth, we are seeing the many ways people serve society in other than its defense. We now recognize the value of the service and sacrifice of many others — first with police, fire, and other first responders. With COVID-19, our gratitude swung toward health and medical professionals, public educators, and even “essential” workers such as in the postal, food handling, and delivery services.
Momentum has been gathering for national service legislation. “As a nation, the United States has not unlocked the full, transformational potential of service in all its forms,” the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service wrote in its report. “We believe that the current moment requires a collective effort to build upon America’s spirit of service to cultivate a widespread culture of service — a culture in which individuals of all backgrounds both expect and aspire to serve their nation or community and have meaningful opportunities to serve throughout their lifetime.”
That “collective effort” is already underway, with or without Washington. Nearly 90 percent of service in America happens at the community level, through tens of millions of volunteers in thousands of non-government organizations. And like charity, real service begins on the block. Our long-standing penchant for moving things forward from the bottom-up more than the top-down has made the United States the country it is and promises to be more of — if we seize the opportunity.
Volunteerism is the way Americans reconcile the ongoing tension between individualism and community, tempering our narcissistic tendencies and its sense of entitlement. It helps keep the unum in our national motto. People with a common sense of service discover that, while they may not agree on all the issues, they share more values than they first thought.
Shared values also come from shared cost. Service requires sacrifice, which gives service its value. It’s why we have Memorial Day.
If Americans truly wish to honor veterans and so many others who have paid the ultimate price in the hope of a more free and just society, then they should strive to make this a country worth their sacrifice. How we can connect with those who have given their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor for something bigger than themselves is to validate their sacrifice through our service. Not all service requires a uniform; it begins with simple acts of kindness. Nor does it have to be an away game. And when you serve your community, you serve your country.
As the pandemic has shown, we’re all in this together. Once again, we must answer the call to meet existential challenges we can only face united — from our latest struggle with autocratic powers like China and Russia to climate change. By revitalizing our democracy through a universally inclusive narrative of service, we have an opportunity to transition the meaning of America in a way that more than makes us a better example to others in the world — by making us better examples as citizens to ourselves. And when we become better citizens, we become a better country.
It also helps pass the baton of leadership to the next generation of Americans, giving them the same chance to find their way into the future that we had from the generation that preceded us. We veterans, of many services, have yet to complete our mission until we have helped pass that baton. By encouraging and empowering young people to do good works — paying it forward as well as giving back — we help them see how service to others benefits everyone including themselves, and find more authenticity in their lives than in social media and reality shows.
Our service helps make good of the sacrifices of those we remember this weekend. The service of the next generation, in turn, keeps the legacy and the promise of America alive, from community to community.
Each of us can set that example, without waiting for political leadership. Citizenship, after all, isn’t just residence in the same way that patriotism isn’t just something you feel or put on a bumper sticker — it’s something you do, for others as well as yourself, as the flags on the graves of those veterans should be reminding us.
The best way to stand up for all the fallen is to be citizens as responsible to our neighbors as to our nation, because they are one and the same. Only united can we stand the tests of our times.
The author, Colonel, U.S. Army Civil Affairs (Ret.), is a member of the American Legion, founder of the National Service Ride project, and author of Travels with Harley — Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity.