John McCain
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

America is witnessing a welcome blooming of popular culture chronicling the contributions of the generation that lived through the Depression and vanquished fascism. From Saving Private Ryan to Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation to Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, Americans are hungry to learn about the heroic service of our parents and grandparents. Some of the commentary surrounding this positive trend, however, has been wistful, even pessimistic. While rightly celebrating the feats of the World War I1 generation, many pundits bemoan the lack of great causes in our day and doubt whether today’s young people would be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to meet such challenges, even if they existed.

I believe these commentators have it wrong. During the last presidential race, I had the privilege of traveling the country and meeting vast numbers of young people. I cannot express how impressed I was. With energy and passion as contagious as it was inspiring, these young Americans confided their dreams and shared their aspirations, not for themselves alone, but for their country. Their attitude should come as no surprise. Though today’s young people, according to polls, have little faith in politics, they are great believers in service. Indeed, they are doing volunteer work in their communities in record numbers—proof that the urge to serve runs especially deep in them. Indeed, most Americans share this impulse, as witnessed after last month’s terrorist attacks, when thousands of Americans lined up to give blood and assist in rescue efforts. It is time we tapped that urge for great national ends.

And it is not true, as the cynics suggest, that our era lacks great causes. Such causes are all around us. Thousands of schools in our poorest neighborhoods are failing their students and cry out for talented teachers. Millions of elderly Americans desperately want to stay in their homes and out of nursing facilities, but cannot do so without help with the small tasks of daily life. More and more of our communities are being devastated by natural disasters. And our men and women in uniform are stretched thin meeting the vital task of keeping the peace in places like Bosnia and Kosovo.

Beyond such concrete needs lies a deeper spiritual crisis within our national culture. Since Watergate, we have witnessed an increased cynicism about our governmental institutions. We see its impact in declining voter participation and apathy about our public life—symptoms of a system that demands reform. But it’s a mistake, I think, to believe that this apathy means Americans do not love their country and aren’t motivated to fix what is wrong. The growth of local volunteerism and the outpouring of sentiment for “the greatest generation” suggest a different explanation: that Americans hunger for patriotic service to the nation, but do not see ways to personally make a difference.

What is lacking today is not a need for patriotic service, nor a willingness to serve, but the opportunity. Indeed, one of the curious truths of our era is that while opportunities to serve ourselves have exploded—with ever-expanding choices of what to buy, where to eat, what to read, watch, or listen to—opportunities to spend some time serving our country have narrowed. The high cost of campaigning keeps many idealistic people from running for public office. Teacher-certification requirements keep talented people out of the classroom. The all-volunteer military is looking for lifers, not those who might want to serve for shorter tours of duty.

The one big exception to this trend is AmeriCorps, the program of national service begun by President Bill Clinton. Since 1994, more than 200,000 Americans have served one-to-two-year stints in AmeriCorps, tutoring school children, building low-income housing, or helping flood-ravaged communities. AmeriCorps members receive a small stipend and $4,725 in college aid for their service. But the real draw is the chance to have an adventure and accomplish something important. And AmeriCorps’ achievements are indeed impressive: thousands of homes constructed; hundreds of thousands of senior citizens assisted to live independently in their own homes; millions of children taught, tutored, or mentored.

Beyond the good deeds accomplished, Americorps has transformed the lives of young people who have participated in its ranks. They have begun to glimpse the glory of serving the cause of freedom. They have come to know the obligations and rewards of active citizenship.

But for all its concrete achievements, AmeriCorps has a fundamental flaw: In its seven years of existence, it has barely stirred the nation’s imagination. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy launched the Peace Corps to make good on his famous challenge to “[a]sk not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country.” Since then, more than 162,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps, and the vast majority of Americans today have heard of the organization. By contrast, more than 200,000 Americans have served in AmeriCorps, yet two out of three Americans say they have never heard of the program.

If we are to have a resurgence of patriotic service in this country, then programs like AmeriCorps must be expanded and changed in ways that inspire the nation. There should be more focus on meeting national goals and on making short-term service, both civilian and military, a rite of passage for young Americans.

National service is an issue that has been largely identified with the Democratic Party and the left of the political spectrum. That is unfortunate, because duty, honor, and country are values that transcend ideology. National service, both civilian and military, can embody the virtues of patriotism that conservatives cherish.

More than a decade ago, the patron saint of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley, Jr., offered an eloquent and persuasive conservative case for national service. In the book Gratitude, Buckley wrote, “Materialistic democracy beckons every man to make himself a king; republican citizenship incites every man to be a knight. National service, like gravity, is something we could accustom ourselves to, and grow to love.”

Buckley was right, but it’s fair to say that it took a while before we conservatives accustomed ourselves to the idea. Indeed, when Clinton initiated AmeriCorps in 1994, most Republicans in Congress, myself included, opposed it. We feared it would be another “big government program” that would undermine true volunteerism, waste money in “make-work” projects, or be diverted into political activism.

We were wrong. Though AmeriCorps’ record is not untarnished, the overall evidence for its effectiveness is hard to deny. For instance, AmeriCorps members tutored over 100,000 first-through-third graders during the 1999-2000 school year. On average, those children scored significantly higher on reading performance tests than would otherwise have been expected, according to Abt Associates, an independent evaluation firm. Having seen results like these-and having often seen AmeriCorps members work on the ground—more and more of my GOP colleagues have changed their minds about the program. Forty-nine of 50 governors, 29 of them Republicans, signed a letter last year urging Congress to support AmeriCorps. One of the signers was then-Texas Governor George W. Bush. As president, Bush put forth a budget that keeps AmeriCorps at its current level of members—the ultimate sign that national service today has truly bipartisan support.

Part of what conservatives admire about AmeriCorps is that it strengthens “civil society”—the rich web of neighborhood, nonprofit, and faith-based groups outside of government that provide services to those in need. This is built into the decentralized design of the program. Most AmeriCorps funding is in the hands of state governors, who give it to their National and Community Service Commissions, who in turn make grants to local nonprofits, who then recruit and hire AmeriCorps members. The vast majority of AmeriCorps members are thus “detailed” to work for organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, or Big Brothers/Big Sisters. They become, in effect, full-time, paid staff members of these often-understaffed organizations.

Rather than elbowing out other volunteers, as many of us feared, AmeriCorps members are typically put to work recruiting, training, and supervising other volunteers. For instance, most of the more than 500 AmeriCorps members who work for Habitat for Humanity spend less time swinging hammers themselves than making sure that hammers, nails, and drywall are at the worksite when the volunteers arrive. They then teach the volunteers the basic skills of how to hang drywall. As a result, studies show that each AmeriCorps member generates, on average, nine additional volunteers.

The ability to provide skilled and motivated manpower to other organizations is what makes AmeriCorps so effective. But it also creates a problem. AmeriCorps members often take on the identity of the organizations they’re assigned to. In the process, they often lose any sense of being part of a larger national service enterprise, if they ever had it at all. Indeed, staffers at nonprofit groups sometimes call AmeriCorps headquarters looking for support for their organizations, only to find out that their own salaries are being paid by AmeriCorps. It’s no wonder most Americans say they have never heard of the program. And a program few have heard of will obviously not be able to inspire a new ethic of national service.

I believe AmeriCorps needs to be expanded and changed, in ways that do not alter those aspects of the program that make it effective, but that build greater espirit de corps among members and encourage a sense of national unity and mission.

There is no doubt that this can be done because some smaller programs within AmeriCorps are already doing it. One example is City Year, an AmeriCorps effort that began in Boston and is now operating in 13 American cities. City Year members wear uniforms, work in teams, learn public speaking skills, and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall. They also provide vital services, such as organizing after-school activities and helping the elderly in assisted-living facilities.

Another example is AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps, a service program consciously structured along military lines. NCCC members not only wear uniforms and work in teams, as City Year members do, but actually live together in barracks on former military bases, and are deployed to service projects far from their home base. This “24/7” experience fosters group cohesion and a sense of mission. AmeriCorps’ NCCC members know they are part of a national effort to serve their country. The communities they serve know that, too.

In April of last year, when the Mississippi’s flood waters threatened the town of Camanche, Iowa, an AmeriCorps NCCC team was brought in to coordinate volunteers and help plug leaks in the town’s levee. “This AmeriCorps crew has probably single-handedly saved $1 million to $1.5 million worth of property damage since they’ve been here,” Camanche Public Works Director Dave Rickertsen told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. NCCC teams also helped out last year after floods in Ohio and Florida, a hurricane in North Carolina, and forest fires in six western states, providing disaster relief to an estimated 33,500 people. This year they’ve been dispatched to help combat nine floods and dozens of forest fires.

When not providing disaster relief, NCCC teams often work in national parks, clearing overgrown trails and rebuilding cabins. In the spring, they help Habitat for Humanity run its Collegiate Challenge, a program that convinces thousands of college students each year to spend their spring breaks not in bars in Ft. Lauderdale but building homes for low-income families.

In May of last year, one NCCC crew descended on the home of Stella Knab, an 80-year-old former cleaning lady, now confined to a wheelchair. Knab lived with her handicapped son in New Orleans’ Bywater district, in a decrepit house with cracked plumbing and rotted wood floors with holes big enough for neighborhood rats to pay visits. The NCCC team moved Knab and her son into a motel for two weeks, and in partnership with a local nonprofit group, the Preservation Resource Center, completely gutted and rebuilt the interior of her house. “It was pretty scary. I really can’t imagine someone living like this,” Paula Dora, 23, one the AmeriCorps members, told The New Orleans Times-Picayune. “It felt more like the Third World than it did the Land of the Free.’ It feels so good to be able to make such a difference.”

Only about 1,000 of AmeriCorps’ 50,000 members are a part of NCCC. City Year accounts for another 1,200. Congress should expand these two programs dramatically, and spread their group-cohesion techniques to other AmeriCorps programs. Indeed, the whole national service enterprise should be expanded, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that every young person who wants to serve can serve. Though this will require significantly more funding, the benefits to our nation will be well worth the investment. At the same time, we must encourage the corporate sector and the philanthropic community to provide funding for national service, with federal challenge grants and other incentives.

We must also ask our nation’s colleges to step up to the plate and more aggressively promote service. Currently, only a small fraction of college work-study funds are devoted to community service, far less than what Congress originally intended when it passed the Higher Education Act in 1965. Congress must encourage universities to comply with the intent of the act to promote student involvement in community activities.

We should also be concerned by the growing gap between our nation’s military and civilian cultures. While the volunteer military has been successful, fewer Americans know and appreciate the sacrifices and contributions of their fellow citizens who serve in uniform. The military is suffering severe recruitment problems.

In the past, it has been a rite of passage for our nation’s leaders to serve in the armed forces. Today, fewer and fewer of my congressional colleagues know from experience the realities of military life. The decline of the citizen-soldier is not healthy for a democracy. While it is not currently politically practical to revive the draft, it is important to find better incentives and opportunities for more young Americans to choose service in the military, if not for a career, then at least for a limited period of time.

For example, an important responsibility of our armed services is peacekeeping around the world. Often, this involves non-military activities such as constabulary work. The military should explore whether short-term enlistees could fulfill these responsibilities, freeing other personnel to perform more traditional military duties.

We should also undertake a campaign to revive Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) on college campuses across the country. On many campuses, ROTC was expelled as a result of protests during the Vietnam War. One result has been an ever-declining number of college graduates choosing military service as a career. Congress should consider linking financial aid to the willingness of colleges to allow ROTC back on campus. It is truly outrageous that some colleges receive federal aid while forbidding access to an organization that promotes the defense of our freedoms.

In America, our rights come before our duties, as well they should. We are a free people, and among our freedoms is the liberty to care or not care for our birthright. But those who claim their liberty but not their duty to the civilization that ensures it live a half-life, indulging their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. The richest men and women possess nothing of real value if their lives have no greater object than themselves.

Success, wealth, celebrity gained and kept for private interest—these are small things. They make us comfortable, ease the way for our children, and purchase a fleeting regard for our lives, but not the self-respect that, in the end, matters most. Sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest, however, and you invest your life with the eminence of that cause.

Americans did not fight and win World War II as discrete individuals. Their brave and determined energies were mobilized and empowered by a national government headed by democratically elected leaders. That is how a free society remains free and achieves greatness. National service is a crucial means of making our patriotism real, to the benefit of both ourselves and our country.