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It all started with a question.

In the summer of 2012, General Stanley McChrystal was conclusion of a conversation on stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival conference.

He was asked if the United States should reinstate the project.

Yes, he replied, but not to increase the size of the armed forces.

He argued that since only 1% of Americans serve their country, America lacks a shared experience – there is almost no common background between the upper class and the middle class, the educated and the uneducated, rural and urban.

The solution would therefore not be compulsory military service, but National service – programs like Teach for America and City Year, but made accessible to a full quarter of an annual cohort rather than a few elites.

Since that conversation, McChrystal has campaigned to make a “year of service” part of the trajectories of young Americans. The goal is to “create 1 million civilian national service opportunities annually for Americans aged 18-28 to step out of their comfort zone while serving side-by-side with people from different backgrounds.”

In an interview with Business Insider, McChrystal, who served as chief of the United States Joint Special Operations Command and commander in chief of United States and international forces in Afghanistan, explained his plan to achieve it and the effects it has national service might have on American company.

Business Insider: What does the word ‘citizenship’ mean to you and how does national service enlighten it?

General Stanley McChrystal: When I think of citizenship, I think of a nation as an alliance. It is an agreement between a group of people to form a pact that does things like common defense, common welfare, etc. The United States is not a place; it’s an idea, and it’s basically a contract between us.

BI: So if a nation is an agreement, then citizenship puts that agreement into action?

SM: This is exactly what it is.

BI: What does citizenship have to do with a common experience?

SM: We have become a nation divided into 50.

There is less connection to the community today than when you lived in a small town, and everyone had to come together to raise a barn. You knew your neighbors because you had to. Grandparents tended to live in the same city as parents, and children grew up there. Nowadays, we don’t live like that anymore.

BI: But service programs today are inaccessible to most people, so how can they serve as a common link? Teach for America, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps – these programs have acceptance rates comparable to Ivy League schools. How to make the service more accessible?

SM: What has happened is that many of our service practices have become almost elitist programs. They do it because they can, and it also protects their brand and reputation so they can survive tough times. But that doesn’t solve the problem because most of the people who are going to do this stuff, I think they come out as better citizens, but that’s too small a number – it’s less than 200,000 children per year. year.

BI: There are a ton of social structures at work here. How to make a change?

SM: We have 4 million young people in each annual cohort in America, so we think over the next 10 years we need to reach about a million children each year to do a year of national service. It would be 25% of the age group.

Now I can’t prove it, but our feeling is that if we get to 25% you are probably going to get critical mass because what we’re trying to do is embed that into the culture of America. so that the service is voluntary, but it is expected. This means that if you interview for a job, apply to a school, show up to a convention, people will naturally ask: Where did you serve?

BI: OK, so how do you make this happen?

SM: Creating a large government agency is not the mechanism to do this.

We’re trying to take existing organizations like Teach for America and grow them. Then Cisco, the company, donated money and helped develop a digital platform that will give us a 21st century ability to match opportunities and people looking for an opportunity. year of service.

I think we are creating a market to do this which obviously starts out slowly and then grows. And then once we get to the point where people really believe that service is not only a good thing to do – in a selfless sense as a citizen – but it benefits them as well.

BI: There seems to be a lot of anxiety about taking a “gap year”. Are there any programs already that eliminate this anxiety?

SM: There is a program that Tufts University put in place called 1 + 4. And I was up there when they announced it. And what you do is apply for Tufts – I think there are 50 spots for the class that came in last September – but you’re doing your first year of national service, kinda like you’re in a red shirt for football, then you turn four.

You’re already accepted, so the family don’t worry, is Johnny going to go to college? If you get financial aid, Tufts pays for it. They pay for national service. Tufts believes he has a more mature freshman. We encourage that in a lot of universities now because it’s a win-win for a university.

They get a more mature person and parents don’t worry about the vagaries of the gap year. There could be a lot of different permutations of this sort of thing, but these are the kinds of things that we consider to be practical steps.

BI: How will you know when the plan is successful?

SM: The key element of the ecosystem is culture which demands national service. At some point my goal is to get nobody to show up to Congress if he hasn’t served, because he thinks he would get beaten up for not doing a year of service.

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This article originally appeared on Defense of business insiders Copyright 2014. Follow BI Defense on Twitter.

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