How America Can Get Its Mojo Back

National-service evangelists hope to inspire a cultural shift among millennials.

At the Aspen Institute, Kevin Baron of Defense One, Rep. Seth Moulton, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Michele Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security. (Steve Johnson/The Aspen Institute )

Capt. Seth Moulton left the Marines in 2008 after four tours in Iraq and found himself on the campus of Columbia University, watching presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain discuss their shared passion for national service.

Moulton was the rare military veteran in a crowd of Peace Corps and AmeriCorps recruits, part of a generation of young Americans with an outsized dedication to causes greater than themselves.

“It was extraordinary for me as a young veteran who had just come back from the surge in Iraq to meet so many other national-service veterans who hadn’t had the same experience as I did, and yet we shared so much in common,” Moulton said seven years later. “The commonality that I had in my experience in Iraq with a Teach for America veteran in New Orleans, for example, was not something that I expected to see, but I saw that there in that moment.”

Whether toting a gun in Iraq or a shovel in New Orleans, the young Americans at Columbia had sacrificed the first years of their adult lives to help others. They had lived and worked with fellow Americans from disparate socioeconomic backgrounds. They had learned to think critically, to solve problems, to lead.

For those millennials and millions more, national service has instilled the same sense of shared destiny and duty that the Greatest Generation found in World War II.

Now Moulton is a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts and part of a movement to make a year of national service a cultural expectation for all young Americans. Year of Service evangelists believe shared sacrifice is an antidote to the great toxins of our times: polarization and intellectual isolation.

Tragedies like the shootings in Paris and Colorado no longer bring us together; they pull us apart and into camps, each with its separate truths and outrage. Depending on where you sit, Robert Dear is a creation of either antiabortion conservatives or anti-life liberals. We, the people, no long share a common set of facts, much less a common cause, and thus Americans no longer believe their country is capable of shared greatness.

We can’t fix big problems.

“A lot of thinkers out there much smarter than I would say the reason we can’t do [big] things ... is because we don’t have national service, because we don’t have a common experience,” Moulton said, while appearing on a Franklin Project panel Monday at the Aspen Institute.

“We’ve never had fewer veterans in Congress in our nation’s history than today,” Moulton continued, “and a lot of older guys talk about how it was different when you knew that while you might have political differences, you could focus on what was best for America when you came to Congress because you had that common experience of fighting together in war.”

The Franklin Project is not calling for a military draft. It is not proposing a mandatory year of service (as I did here). Rather, the group hopes to create a series of pressures and incentives for national service, including:

-Preferential treatment in college admissions

-Five-year university programs that include one year of paid service.

-Corporations allowing new hires to do a year of paid service before starting their jobs.

The idea, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal told the panel, is to raise cultural expectations to a point that parents and peers start assuming that high school graduates will spend a year in service before getting on with their lives.

The service must be compensated, said Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, so that the programs aren’t limited to young Americans who come from wealthy homes.

“Nowadays,” Isaacson said, “there’s just no expectation that you’ll get out of your zip codes, your comfort zones.” Isaacson, a historian, said every good thing that has happened to America was the result of “people stepping up,” sacrificing a bit of themselves for the greater good. “That’s been lacking today,” he said. “I think it undergirds all the incivility and polarization in the public sector.”

“There is something about service that is essential to citizenship,” said McChrystal, adding that America has lost its service ethic “as we’ve been more atomized and more anonymous in more areas” of life.

Which is why it’s a national shame that President Obama failed to deliver on his 2008 promise to expand AmeriCorps, and a disgrace that the GOP-led Congress wants to gut the program.

“There is the potential to find political agreement on both sides of the aisle for an issue that does bring Americans together,” Moulton said, “but I think it’s tough.”

NOTE: The panel was cosponsored by Defense One, a sister publication of National Journal.