Patriotism Means Reaching beyond

Our Self-interest


Senator John McCain, (Republican, Arizona)



            We should also be concerned by the growing gap between our nations military and civilian cultures. While the volunteer military has been successful, fewer Americans know and appreciate the sacrifices and contributions of their fellow citizens who serve in uniform. The military is suffering severe recruitment problems.

            In the past, it has been a rite of passage for our nations leaders to serve in the armed forces. Today, fewer and fewer of my congressional colleagues know from experience the realities of military life. The decline of the citizen-soldier is not healthy for a democracy Although it is not currently politically practical to revive the draft, it is important to find better incentives and opportunities for more young Americans to choose service in the military, if not for a career, then at least for a limited period of time.

            If we are to have a resurgence of patriotic service in this country, then programs like AmeriCorps must be expanded and changed in ways that inspire the nation. There should be more focus on meeting national goals and on making short-term service, both civilian and military, a rite of pas-sage for young Americans.

            That is why Senator Evan Bayh and I have introduced legislation to revamp national service programs and dramatically expand opportunities for public service. Many tasks lie ahead, both new and old. On the home front, there are new security and civil defense requirements, such as increased police and border patrol needs. We will charge the Corporation for National Service, the federal office that oversees national volunteer programs, with the task of assembling a plan that would put civilians to work assisting the Office of Homeland Security. And because the military will need new recruits to confront the challenges abroad, our bill will also improve benefits for members of our armed services.

            At the same time, because the society we defend needs increased services, from promoting literacy to caring for the elderly, we will expand AmeriCorps and senior service programs to enlarge our national army of volunteers. Currently, more than 50,000 volunteers serve in AmeriCorps. Under our bill, 250,000 volunteers each year would be able to answer the call—with half of them assisting in civil defense needs and half continuing the good work of AmeriCorps.We must also ask our nations colleges to promote service more aggressively. Currently, many colleges devote only a small fraction of federal work-study funds to community service, while the majority of federal resources are used to fill low-skill positions. This was not Congress's vision when it passed the Higher Education Act of 1965. Under our bill, universities will be required to promote student involvement in community activities more vigorously. We also seek to better enable seniors age fifty-five and older to serve their communities in a variety of capacities, including education, long-term care, and acting as foster grandparents. Our legislation removes the low-income requirement for participation in all three Senior Service pro-grams, provides low-income seniors with a stipend for service, and creates a competitive grant program to provide seniors with training both to pre-pare and encourage them to serve. And for those who might consider serving their country in the armed forces, the benefits must keep pace with the times. Although the volunteer military has been successful, our armed forces continue to suffer from significant recruitment challenges. On May 10, 2002, the Senate Armed Ser-vices Committee passed the military service program that was part of the original McCain-Bayh national service legislation.4 This program would offer a new short-term enlistment option for the armed services. Individuals who volunteer under the new program would be required to serve on active duty for fifteen months after completion of initial entry training. They then complete the remainder of their military service obligation by participating in the Selected Reserve and subsequently in the Individual Ready Reserve or in a civilian national service program such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.

            I strongly believe that public service is a virtue. This is the right moment to issue a new call to service and give a new generation a way to claim the rewards and responsibilities of active citizenship.

            In America our rights come before our duties, as well they should. We are a free people, and among our freedoms is the liberty to care or not care for our birthright. However, those who claim their liberty but not their duty to the civilization that ensures it live a half-life, indulging their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. The richest men and women possess nothing of real value if their lives have no greater object than themselves.   

            Success, wealth, celebrity gained and kept for private interest—these are small things. They make us comfortable, ease the way for our children, and purchase a fleeting regard for our lives but not the self-respect that, in the end, matters most. Make a sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest, however, and you invest your life with the eminence of that cause.

            National service is a crucial means of making our patriotism real, to the benefit of both our country and ourselves.


From Dionne, E. J,  Drogosz, K. M., Litan, R. E., eds, United We Serve: National Service and the Future of Citizenship, Brookings Institution Press, 2003, pp. 65 - 7.