OP-ED: Are We Losing a Generation of Young Americans?

By Joseph J. Honick
Joseph J. Honick
Joseph J. Honick

Editor's note: Joe Honick thinks this op-ed, which originally ran Jan. 16, 2009, deserves to be reprinted. With the death today (June 3)  of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, the last World War II veteran in the Senate and a man who believed in devoting much of his life to public service, we at HNN agree. Lautenberg, from a poor Russian-Jewish family, used his VA benefits to get the college education his father said he needed, started a company that was very successful, and repaid his country working  for the public good in six terms in the Senate. A member of the Greatest Generation, Lautenberg (1924-2013)  will be missed.

President-elect Barack Obama will shed his preliminary designation on January 20 and assume the toughest leadership job in the world at a time when it is imperative he needs to get the support of all Americans. 

He has called for a program to enlist that help to support the nation.  It is unfortunate that millions of young Americans were lost to such involvement because of political decisions a long time back.

A generation ago, President Richard Nixon signed off on an act of Congress that established the all volunteer Army. Thus, in one swift, shortsighted move, the government of the United States relieved millions of young people of virtually any responsibility to the nation for some kind of public service before launching their careers.

Since then, we have sustained military engagements never declared as real wars with the hired hands of enlistees and career officers while everyone else stood on the sidelines and cheered at parades and ball games. We have all solemnly pledged our support for the “other guys (and ladies)” who have willingly placed themselves in harm’s way to protect not only us but other nations as well.

Today, we are in fact engaged not only in a presidentially defined war on terrorism but a major campaign in the Middle East to recreate two foreign nations, Afghanistan and Iraq.  We have become virtually irrelevant in trying to resolve other conflicts in that inflammatory region. But how can we wage a real war while most of those who might be eligible to perform service go on their merry ways as the beneficiaries of the risks assumed by their co-generationists?

More than that, what does “service” really mean?

The absence of requiring some minimal commitment of some kind of public service to the nation on completion of high school or attainment of age 18 has given tacit approval to the idea we can merely hire all those needed to defend the nation. All others, please stand up and cheer and place your hand over your heart!

There is a certain hypocrisy to the debate over what words should come after “one nation” in the pledge of allegiance even as we are all excused from any personal involvement in what purports to be an interminable war. We’re not even asked to buy war bonds to finance it! Should we reinstate the draft? Wow! What an explosive question for every politician to run from even as so many members of Congress continue to double dip by collecting pay for summer reserve duty in the various armed services reserves.

We need not have a draft into the armed services if this is too tough to accept by delicate teenagers unsure of their public responsibilities to the nation. Perhaps we can call it required community service. It would at least imply a duty to do something positive in modest repayment for the privileges they and we continue to enjoy.

Check out the young people in Israel who are not only required to serve a period of active military service but remain eligible for recall to active duty until nearly the age of 50. The same is true in many other nations that also require young people to help meet other community needs for the poor, the elderly and the handicapped.

We are told we are in an intensive and long term war against terrorism. We can debate the terms, but the fact is that this demands a total national commitment. God forbid there may ever have to be a broader commitment of forces. But we have learned from bitter history that, when we suddenly have to round up millions of unprepared young people to fill that emergency, the losses are inexcusable and shameful.

So it is time that we reevaluate what is expected of young people who today understandably see no requirement for any kind of public service beyond the chest thumping at football games and bumper stickers declaring patriotism.

After all, the adults have endorsed that feeling by their actions and their laws. Unless we take steps soon to restate those expectations, why should the kids be expected to feel differently either?

What our soon to be President Obama has called for is something most of our parents and those before them simply assumed to be right and necessary:  contribute yourself personally to your community and your nation in ways that use your talents and your skills most effectively.  Too bad President Nixon erased that understanding with the rapid and unwise stroke of a pen more than three decades ago.

The PR profession has a wonderful opportunity to take leadership to re-ignite the flame of inspiration for all generations at this critical time, and the place to start is with the young.

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Joseph J. Honick is an international consultant to business and government and writes for many publications, including huntingtonnews.net. Honick can be reached at joehonick@gmail.com. This commentary originally appeared in O'Dwyer's PR Report and is reprinted by permission.

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