As we honor our fallen Americans, we should revive national service

As we honor our fallen Americans, we should revive national service
© Getty Images

Adjacent to my home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, just up a gradual hill, is Youngs Memorial Cemetery, where President Theodore Roosevelt is buried. His grave marker says “Lieut. Col. US Army.” It excludes that part of his life when he was president. Not far away is Sagamore Hill, where he lived and died. The estate is part of Long Island’s Gold Coast, the sprawling expanse of estates, compounds, gatehouses and stables best described in “The Great Gatsby,” a diamond belt of wealth and privilege.

Today, flags will be planted at Roosevelt’s grave. They’ll also be planted in the American Cemetery in Normandy, at the grave of his eldest son, Brig. Gen. “Ted” Roosevelt Jr., who helped lead a wave of troops across Utah Beach on D-Day and suffered a fatal heart attack a month later.

ADVERTISEMENT
Class didn’t separate the Roosevelts from the others buried in American military cemeteries in the United States and around the world. It didn’t protect Joseph Kennedy, killed in World War II and memorialized at the American Cemetery in Cambridge, England. Or his younger brother, John F. Kennedy, who led his PT-109 crew to survival after their vessel was destroyed. Or George H.W. Bush, whose torpedo bomber was shot down and who drifted in a raft until rescued.

Once, America was a place of shared service. We fought enemies together, designed and built roads and dams together, found a way to the Moon together. Service to the nation bound us in collective cause no matter what our economic standing or ideology. It’s what enabled JFK to proclaim at his inauguration, with credibility versus incredulity, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Now we are a nation in angry cleaving, unbound from common cause. Once our eyes widened at the Moon as we planned how to get there. Now our eyes are locked downward to the latest “instant message” offering instant gratification. Or on the latest tweet from our #MeOnly president. We’ve gone from the “Greatest Generation” to a goalless generation.

That helps explain why, on this Memorial Day, there seems little that unites the United States. One of the smartest — and boldest — strategies to narrow the divide is incentivizing national service for young people. Controversial, yes, but America’s greatest leaps were ignited by great crisis. The increasing isolation and fragmentation of our country is a crisis.

Even our brain circuitry is dividing us. As a result of gerrymandering and the consolidation and “tribalization” of our media, there’s less space in our minds for diverging opinion. If you’re a politically engaged Republican, you wake up in a congressional district packed with people who think like you. You go to the coffee shop or diner where everyone else votes like you do and where an overhead television blares the latest feverish spin on Fox News. You go to work with mostly Republican voters who agree with you. Then you come home at night and turn on a spewing Sean Hannity.

If you go to Facebook the content and ads are targeted to validate your thoughts. The same things — just opposite content — happen to Democrats. It’s not the United States. It’s Maddow Nation versus Hannity Nation. (Full disclosure: Hannity lives on an island within eyesight of my home, but I watch Rachel Maddow on the television in my home.)

It wasn’t always like this. We were always able to bridge our differences by, well, building bridges. By building highways. By fighting Nazis and fascists. By racing the Soviet Union to the Moon. By blazing trails at the Grand Canyon through the Civilian Conservation Corps, building the Hoover Dam, and electrifying the Tennessee Valley.

The people who did these things were conservatives and liberals, wealthy and working families, but mostly middle class. That middle class didn’t reflect the true racial or ethnic diversity of America, but it exposed its members to ideological diversity and required a tolerance for opinions that were different. No wonder America’s suburbs are the last bastions of moderation because moderation was planted in them.

National service also fostered civic engagement, an awareness of our institutions and history. That engagement gave voice to widespread pride. We knew we weren’t perfect. We were proud of a Constitution based on being “more perfect.” National service has always been the great equalizer, an economic strategy, a uniter of factions and an uplifter of spirit. We need it again, especially for a new generation of Americans addicted to their personal devices and unaware of collective purpose.

The federal government should incentivize national service. Instead of “free tuition,” how about tying it to a certain number of hours in service to one’s community? Instead of giving rich people tax shelters, how about tax cuts if they or family members work at a homeless shelter? Instead of college students who get credits for a “semester abroad,” how about credits for students who spend a “semester of service” at home?

The National Corporation for Community Service is one among several enterprises trying to engage Americans. In Congress, Rep. John Larson John Barry LarsonDemocrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her Ryan, lawmakers call on Catholic Church leaders to come clean More than 150 Dems launch caucus to expand Social Security benefits MORE (D-Conn.) has been a champion of national service, sponsoring legislation incentivizing it through tuition awards. Rep. Seth MoultonSeth Wilbur MoultonDemocrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her 11 Dems float anti-Pelosi leadership plan: reports To cure Congress, elect more former military members MORE (D-Mass.) and Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthDems should run as economic progressives, says ex-Obama strategist Democrats must reconcile party factions to raise blue wave odds Senate Dems want DOJ review of Giuliani's work for foreign entities MORE (D-Ill.), who both served in war, proposed legislation to encourage young people to serve in universal, fully voluntary service. In addition to speaking of shared sacrifice, I hope Congress will consider acting on it by considering these and other bills.

About 10 miles from Roosevelt’s grave, on the far end of a gleaming corridor of corporate office buildings and in the shadow of the rusted, abandoned defense plants of World War II, is the American Airpower Museum. I visited it often as a congressman. My best memory there was watching a man in his 80s shuffling through the exhibits with a young boy. The old man pointed at a war plane suspended from the high ceiling. With a proud glint in his eyes, he said, “See that? Poppy helped build it.”

He built it with neighbors named Sal, Brian, Mort and, yes, Rosy the Riveter. Some were well off, and some struggled. Years ago, the museum saluted the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American pilots, navigators, bombardiers and others who performed vital services to the nation. Today, we consecrate our war dead. We also should revive a United States united by common purpose, visionary goals, and service higher than self.

Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelPolarization offers false choices on support for Israel Donald Trump may stun America with shocking November surprise The year the party machines broke MORE represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He is the author of the novel “Big Guns.” Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.