General Wesley Clark, who is running for the Democratic nomination to oppose President George W. Bush next November, understands public service. He retired from military service as a four-star general after a 34-year career. But more importantly, he understands that our American democracy depends on the active participation of each of us.
In another entry, I quoted historian Edward Gibbon on the decline of Athenian democracy. America is not Athens, but his words are as relevant for our time as they were for Athens:
They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all -- security, comfort and freedom...
When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them...
When the freedom they wished for most -- was freedom from responsibility...
Then, Athens ceased to be free.
There are two distinct themes relevant to our times in that quote: first, our emphasis on our own lives and concerns to the exclusion of those around us leads to a loss of what we value most. This is as relevant in a small town as it is in an international community.
Second, forgetting our responsibility as citizens leads us to gradually lose our democracy, and maybe even our freedom.
That's why I am applauding General Clark's plan to create a "Civilian Reserve." Here's what I like about it.
Clark proposes to create a national volunteer registry of citizens who want to make themselves available to be called up in the case of an emergency. You register with (presumably) a web site, and list your skills. For the next five years, you can be activated by the President or an act of Congress in case of need. When you're activated, you have the opportunity to decline service, or to accept. If you accept, you could serve for up to six months, and be guaranteed to be able to return to your job, the same way the Reserves and National Guard works today.
This is pretty obviously a good idea, since it creates an organization in advance of a crisis, rather than after the fact. People with needed skills would be more easily located and activated during a crisis than they are today.
But more than that, I think there is an important secondary benefit. The mechanism Clark proposes creates a two-step voluntary commitment process. This is brilliant. The first step is a very low-risk commitment, since there is no mandatory service requirement. You're not enlisting in the Army Reserves here -- there is no training, no one-weekend-a-month, etc. You just sign up, and you may not be called up at all in the next five years.
Not only does this make it more likely to appeal to more people -- I would sign up myself -- but importantly, it creates a sense of commitment and responsibility from day one. Some people may sign up cynically, but I doubt that. Most would sign up with a genuine will to serve, and would feel a sense of pride of being willing to make a sacrifice for their fellow citizens and country. Even if never called, this action may activate the volunteer, and make them more likely to take an interest in the community around them: its social issues, political debates, and maybe even national dialogue.
In other words, to fully participate as a citizen.
I haven't heard of anything else like this existing or proposed, though Senator John Kerry has also proposed a new service program. We have very successful programs like AmeriCorps, but budgetary commitment to those programs, especially recently, has wavered; and a significant commitment is necessary to serve.
I applaud General Clark for understanding that to ask us to serve is half the battle, whether we serve or not. Reminding us that we have a responsibility as citizens, and that the state of our democracy declines when we avoid that responsibility, is brave, and very welcome. We all aspire to be better people, and collectively, a better nation. Taking responsibility for our role in making both of those things happen is always the first step.
I'd like to close with a quote from the speech in which he announced this plan:
The terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon thought they could rock the foundation of our economy, and strike a blow to the symbol of our strength.
They didn't understand that the foundation isn't concrete and steel - it's people like you.
They didn't understand that the measure of America's strength does not rest in our military arsenal.
They didn't understand that the real measure of America's strength is our people.
They didn't understand that freedom and democracy - and our commitment to each other - makes us stronger.
We know that our strength rests in our families and communities.
We know that our strength lies in our commitment to freedom and equality.
We know that our strength lies in a vibrant national debate - an open, honest discussion of the issues, where everyone has right to disagree.
And above all, we know that our diversity is our greatest strength.
Our diversity, and our commitment to one another, is what makes this country great. They are our unique strengths. If we forget them, we may lose what we value most. And we may never live up to our aspirations as a nation.