Articles

This retired general thinks all young Americans should serve for a year

It's a question that has lasted as long as the Selective Service debate: Should every American serve for a year or two before entering the work force or pursuing higher education?


Arguments have been made for both sides of the case since the last draft in 1973, though the pro-service cause may have just found their strongest and most vocal ally yet — former Joint Special Operations Command chief Stanley McChrystal. Though McChrystal has largely stayed out of the spotlight since his retirement in 2010, he has still been very vocal about this concept, recently penning an op-ed for Time Magazine on the value of national service.

In his article, McChrystal says that the time is ripe for the country to come together to institute a mandatory year of paid national service for young Americans aged 18-28 years. A yearlong commitment would not only instill the values of accountability and responsibility towards citizenship, but will also develop character and leadership traits, he argues.

Former SECDEF Robert Gates awards the Distinguished Service Medal to Gen. Stanley McChrystal during his retirement ceremony in 2010 (Photo US Air Force)

The retired general does stress, however, that national service should not be directed entirely towards the military. He feels that an open choice between different service organizations needs to exist, allowing for hundreds of thousands of young Americans to have a positive impact beginning in their communities, and resulting in progress on a national level.

This is a view seemingly very common among military veterans, a number of whom have gone on record to discuss the merits of a year of service. It also isn't the first time McChyrstal has promoted a year of compulsory national service. In 2016, he urged candidates participating in the 2016 presidential race to consider making this idea a reality, and in 2012, the former special operations chief gave a speech to Harvard University on the same topic.

AmeriCorps volunteers working in Mississippi, circa 2006.

McChyrstal himself is no stranger to service, having joined the Army in 1976 after graduating from West Point. Born into a military family, he rose through the ranks, serving with regular infantry units, on a Special Forces "A-Team", and eventually the 75th Ranger Regiment, prior to taking command of JSOC in 2003.

Described by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as "perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat [he] had ever met," McChrystal is easily a soldier's soldier, known for his willingness to be on the frontlines instead of an air conditioned office stateside. His career in the Army ended in 2010 with a truncated stint as the command of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

A national service commitment isn't exactly anything new, especially with many European and Asian nations. Israel and Switzerland are two of the most notable examples, with both countries mandating by law that youth of a certain age are required to register with the military or with a civil service body for a predetermined term. In both countries, the commitment ranges from a year to two years, though some decide to stay around and build a career out of their service terms.

Swiss military recruits during a training march through a town

Switzerland, in particular, has utilized conscription to staff its military for decades by having conscripts report for a 260-day service period upon reaching the age of majority. Recruits can choose to serve their entire commitment in 300 continuous days, or train in periods throughout the year, somewhat similar to the National Guard and various branch reserves in the United Sates.

However, should a recruit decide that military service isn't for them, they can elect to join the country's civil service as a paid employee for a 390-day period.

Currently, the national year of service topic has yet to be brought up by the White House or Congress, though it still remains a talking point for many, including McChrystal and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a retired Navy attack pilot.

Until meaningful discourse on the subject arises, the retired general and the sitting Senator have worked together to sponsor efforts to afford military veterans and civilian volunteers more opportunities to voluntarily serve their countries in various civil organizations.