National Service and the Focus on Self

The services for John McCain remind us of the best of America, just when we need it most. All good people crave the decency, dignity and diversity on display last week and, yes, otherwise missing from public life these days. 

Some question whether the United States will ever emerge from the current darkness. Senator McCain's services bolster the belief that, perhaps, just perhaps, our best days are still ahead of us. There is much work to do, however, if we are ever to recover. 

McCain epitomized the spirit of national service. He understood that patriotism is forged from shared beliefs in something greater than ourselves and that nations thrive when the selfless trumps the selfish. Our focus in the U.S. and well beyond has too often been on self-interest, however. Is it any surprise, for example, that 40 percent of the new words added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018 include the prefix “self.” 

One clear way to help us rekindle our patriotic ideals and instill a shared sense of common purpose is to require every young American to undertake at least one year of national service. This means everyone; no exceptions for fortunate sons and daughters, either. If we are ever to overcome or at least reduce our divisions – and that remains an open question – we need to create and sustain common experiences designed to bond us and to teach us about our country, its diverse peoples and the meaning of sacrifice. 

Universal national service could be undertaken in the active military or reserves, Coast Guard, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Teach for America, City Year or even in expansion of programs such as SEA Education Association. Building and sustaining this effort would require investment, for sure, but it would certainly be a smaller number than the impact of the 2017 federal tax cuts or one or more gold-plated weapons platforms that our military does not want or need. In the spirit of shared sacrifice, we taxpaying Americans should be willing to invest relatively small amounts of our tax dollars to reassert our national identity and civic health, right? Don't count on it.

Of course, none of this will ever happen. We the people would resist any call for universal service. There is no doubt that our politicians would dodge the idea at all cost, as well. It's a quaint, romantic vision unfit for the times, right? That’s really too bad, since business-as-usual approaches to fixing our nation are not going to solve this existential crisis. We should be aiming much higher and willing to give much more of ourselves. Duty. Honor. Country.


My Navy unit was privileged to support the USS John S. McCain commissioning in 1994 at Bath Iron Works in Maine. The commissioning of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, now named after the Senator as well as his father and grandfather – both Admirals –  marked the first time I met this American hero. The last time we met (photo) was at a World Affairs Council of Boston event on September 10, 2001, the night before the world changed forever.