Madeleine Albright writes about D-Day and the value of national service in USA Today
Like many Americans of a certain age, I have always felt a direct connection to the events of D-Day, 70 years ago Friday. I was 7 years old, living in London, when the liberation of Europe — and eventually the liberation of my parents' home — began in the early morning of June 6, 1944. My family had fled from Czechoslovakia following the Munich Agreement, which legitimized Adolf Hitler's dismemberment of a neighboring nation and became a symbol of the West's impotence and division.
D-Day was the opposite historical pole to Munich. It was not only the decisive battle in a great war, it also was the demonstration that a great alliance, led by America, could achieve unprecedented strategic, technical and moral purposes. The first wave of Operation Overlord carried 150,000 men and 1,500 tanks to the French coast, essentially transporting a small city across the English Channel through a hail of artillery and machine gun fire. This achievement set the tone for a generation, in which the task of saving the world became a normal, expected part of Americans' calling.
This spirit of civic competence and shared enterprise was carried home, in a thousand less obvious ways. The generation that won World War II believed, on good evidence, that national problems could yield to common action. So they joined institutions more, voted more and engaged in public service more than the generations before or after them.
An anniversary is an excuse for nostalgia, but these values and commitments are of more than historical interest. They are, in fact, essential to self-government, citizenship and the particular challenges of the modern world. In a time when our sense of civic competence is weakened, when there are fewer bonds that tie people of different social backgrounds together, when national purpose sometimes seems like sand in our hands, America needs to renew the spirit of service.
The expression of that venerable ideal will, of course, be different in today's world. America still depends on the courage and skill of men and women in uniform. Yet the changing nature of military service, involving higher technology and lower manpower, has reduced the percentage of Americans who experience the risks and culture of our armed forces. A broad ethic of national service, however, is still needed, for the sake of our national security and our civic success.
Service is transformative. At its best, it makes people aware of needs around them. It bridges races and classes, diminishing differences in the pursuit of common goals. It demonstrates that difficult national problems can be addressed and overcome by citizen action. It is an antidote to both selfishness and a feeling of social helplessness.
Time for public service
How do we renew the spirit of service in our time? That question was the focus of a summit at Gettysburg, Pa., this week, sponsored by the Franklin Project at The Aspen Institute. Retired general Stan McChrystal convened a bipartisan group of leaders and activists around a big, much-needed idea: to provide 1 million civilian national service opportunities for 18- to 28-year-olds every year, on par with the more than 1 million who serve on active duty in our nation's military.
While keeping service voluntary, the goal is to make a "service year" a normal, expected part of American life. Pursuing this objective would allow tutors and mentors to be mobilized in low-performing schools, allow unemployed youth to conserve parks and rivers, and allow returning veterans to continue serving while integrating back into civilian life.
The rising generation is asking for these opportunities. They young are overwhelming organizations such as Teach for America, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps with applications for a limited number of spots. They are requesting its shot at greatness. We have an opportunity and duty to provide it.
It was once common in America to ask, "Where did you serve?" A generation whose members could answer "Juno" or "Omaha" deserves to be honored at every opportunity. And one way to honor them is to encourage an ethic of responsibility, competence and courage that they would recognize — and that remains necessary among Americans of every generation. A small percentage of this generation can answer that question by saying "Fallujah" or "Marjeh," "Baghdad" or "Kandahar." Imagine a world where every American could answer with the names of communities in America and across the globe in need of hope.
Madeleine Albright served as secretary of State in the Clinton administration. She is chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group and a member of the Leadership Council of the Franklin Project.
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