On Memorial Day -- A Plan for National Service

Every Memorial Day weekend the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Marines visit New York for Fleet Week. They open their ships to tourists, and people young and old line up for hours for the chance to tour the best the U.S. military has to offer. You see old World War II Vets, like Lou DiPaulo, aboard the USS Iwo Jima, talking about what it was like fighting for every inch of Mt. Suribachi. Or foreign dignitaries looking with wonder at the awesome might of the United States.

But it’s the children that you notice the most -- along with the sad realization that while most of them are thrilled to play sailor or marine for a day – few of them will ever enlist. You see young kids crawling all over helicopters they will never fly, and landing craft they will never sail, running up the gangplanks of ships they never serve on, trying on uniforms they will never wear.

Not because they won’t have the opportunity to join the armed forces but because, in all likelihood, they will choose NOT to do so. Today only 1% of Americans serve in the military; the majority of Americans don’t even know people who serve, other than an ever-dwindling number of WWII vets who are their parents or grandparents.

Today we have an all-volunteer force, and in many ways that is good. It means those who don’t want to join the military aren’t forced to do so. It means the military can invest the time and resources in training servicemen on ever more sophisticated equipment confident they will stay in long enough to make the cost of training them pay off. But there is something that doesn’t quite sit right with a nation, the wealthiest the world has ever seen, where it’s citizens subcontract out its defense.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen told the West Point graduating class that, “I fear they do not know us….I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.”

It makes it far to easy for our political leaders to commit armed forces to battle when their own children will never have to fight or die. Or to continue in a war they are unable to win, but unwilling to end because the broad mass of Americans don’t rise up and say no. Or commit overwhelming force to a war we need to win, because they worry voters would balk if they knew the real price tag in lives and treasure.

When only a tiny fraction of our people pay the price of our politicians’ mistakes, those politicians are rarely held accountable. More Members of Congress have been to law school than officer candidate school. In recent years our presidents have not been veterans, or if so, not combat veterans.

We’ve come to expect that our presidential candidates spend several years in law school or business school – but it’s a rarity if they’ve done a tour of duty in the military. Does that leave them lacking as leaders when one of the most important constitutional responsibilities of a president is to be commander in chief, or Congressmen to vote a declaration of war and appropriate funds for the common defense?

What do they know of the sacrifices and responsibilities of our servicemen and women, when the closest they’ve come is marching next to them in a Memorial Day parade?

We’re now engaged in at least two unpopular wars -- a third if you count Libya -- and none of them have gone well. Our nation is understandably war weary and concerned about the burden on our nation’s budget at a time of financial crisis. As a country, we seem more disconnected from each other – and from our leaders – as any time in our history. And the notion of “ask not what your country can do, but what you can do for your country” seems as alien and anachronistic as a victory garden in the backyard. Isn’t it time we think again about national service?

Not bringing back the draft, or mandatory military service -- the military doesn’t want that any more than the population. But what about some sort of national military or public service for America’s youth?

Every few years someone introduces legislation calling for national public service. In times of plenty, it was unrealistic. Why would any of our young people want to give up high paying jobs for a year or two, for low paying jobs of sacrifice? But times are different now. Those high paying jobs have dried up, and our young people often find no jobs at all. Youth unemployment is at an all time high, and unlikely to improve anytime soon.

Now is the time to seize the moment, and make lemonade out of lemons.

Let’s reconsider national public service, and ask that our 18-year-olds to spend 18 months serving their country – in the military, rebuilding our parks system, teaching in schools, helping out in senior citizen centers.

Today our high school and college graduates compete fiercely for internships – often unpaid – just for the chance to get some real life experience and get off mom and dad’s couch. Wouldn’t it be better for them to spend 18 months putting something back in, doing something to help the country, moving beyond their comfort zones, meeting their fellow countrymen from all walks of life? Understanding that America is not a collection of competing classes and ethnic groups and regional prejudices but a nation that moves a step beyond and takes all those disparate groups and forges them into a unified nation of the American people?

Memorial Day is when we honor our fallen dead, and remember the sacrifice they made so all of us can be free. It used to be called Decoration Day, when we decorated the graves of those who died in battle. But war is so far removed from the lives of most of us that we no longer think of this day as anything more than the official beginning of summer fun and sun.

These are uncertain times, when we would all do well to remember that a great nation remains great only so long as its people are willing to sacrifice to keep it so.

In his speech at West Point Admiral Mullen warned that, “a people uninformed about what they are asking the military to endure is a people inevitably unable to fully grasp the scope of the responsibilities our Constitution levies upon them.”

Not a terribly artful way of saying it, but what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs meant was that all Americans, not just those in the military, owe something, should give something back to this great nation which gives us so much. And he wasn’t just talking about taxes.

Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland is a Fox News National Security Analyst and host of FoxNews.com's DefCon 3. She served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, and wrote Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s November 1984 "Principles of War Speech" which laid out the Weinberger Doctrine. Be sure to watch "K.T." every Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET on FoxNews.com's "DefCon3"-- already one of the Web's most watched national security programs.