By Todd Cohen
Ripped apart by a culture of greed and blame, the U.S. has become its own worst enemy, and we need a commitment to public service to help make ourselves whole again.
After its struggle and sacrifice during the Great Depression, “the greatest generation” defeated the Axis powers in World War II and powered the post-war economic boom.
But despite our economic and military might, we have lost our way, trapped in a self-fulfilling cycle of fear, hate, intolerance, finger-pointing, self-absorption and a righteous and unearned sense of entitlement.
Despite the mess we are in, Tom Brokaw, the former NBC News anchor and author of “The Greatest Generation,” has hope that the U.S. can reclaim its greatness.
We have failed as a people since 9/11 and during the current economic crisis to make anywhere near the kinds of sacrifices the men and women in our military have made in fighting a series of wars in the Gulf, Brokaw told nearly 650 people Nov. 18 at the Shelton National Leadership Forum at N.C. State University.
“It’s time for the rest of us to re-enlist as citizens,” Brokaw said at the Forum, created by Gen. H. Hugh Shelton, a North Carolina native and N.C. State graduate who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Brokaw proposed that six public-service academies be created, possibly at land-grant universities such as Cornell and Colorado State.
The academies, the civil equivalent of our military academies, would offer three-year fellowships supported through public-private partnerships.
Enrollment in the fellowships, Brokaw said, might be modeled on service in the Israeli Defense Forces, where national military service is mandatory for all citizens over age 18.
So fellows would serve after completing high school and before enrolling in college, and fellowships would include or be followed by service abroad.
Graduates of the academies, like people mustering out of the Israeli Defense Forces, Brokaw said, would be more mature when they enrolled in college, having learned important life lessons and critical skills such as managing risk and serving on a team.
Graduates of the academies also would function as a kind of “diplomatic special forces,” he said, sharing the best values of our society and culture with people in other countries, while learning about their culture and sharing what they learn when they return home.
Brokaw said America is under siege, both at home from the divisiveness in our society and politics, and abroad from fiercely competitive economic powers like China.
That competition, he said, is the economic and cultural equivalent of war.
And a key way to wage that war is through public service and the kind of sacrifice and commitment “the greatest generation” made to make America whole again after the devastation of the Great Depression and World War II.
So ultimately, Brokaw said, we need leadership.
Brokaw characterized our need for leadership by quoting the demand, if not the plea, from one of his young granddaughters when she was alone with her sister in a cabin during a camping trip while he and his wife were outside the cabin sleeping under the stars: “We need an adult – now.”