ML Cavanaugh

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

The American Legion is turning 100 years old, and as it celebrates a century of service, it faces ruthless membership decline. To confront this challenge, the Legion should embrace an expansive new program of national service through partnership with an organization like Service Year Alliance. This partnership and new organization would give national service an immense boost, breathe new life into a slowly suffocating organization, and maybe even reduce some of the political divisions that plague America.

What began at the end of World War I as semi-formal caucuses among veterans in Paris and Saint Louis, was formalized in the American Legion’s founding convention from November 10 to 12, 1919 in Minneapolis. While the 684 delegates came from all across the country, they agreed on neutrality in politics. “This organization shall be absolutely non-political,” the Legion wrote into its constitution over that Veterans Day. This neutrality, paired with the Legion’s commitment to service, has always given it high trust and confidence from the American public, as well as a formal charter from the U.S. Congress to support “mutual helpfulness and service to their country.”

That same spirit of non-partisan service has remained dominant in the organization’s DNA over the 100 years since, even as it has fallen from 3.1 million members two decades ago to about 2 million today. The Legion is still the largest veteran service organization in America, but the passing of so many Second World War veterans, coupled with the fewer troops required in modern militaries — suggest continued decline.

The Legion is aging and could use an injection of energy and youth to survive and grow. And many, like retired general Stanley McChrystal, want to see civilian national service greatly expanded in America. The American Legion’s excess supply might just meet the current demand for national service. Commentators have long urged national service. William James, in a 1906 speech at Stanford University, argued that a campaign of public service at home would be the “moral equivalent of war.”

But James was too early. America lacked the power of the Information Age. Today, if technology can match a driver and a passenger in real time, it can connect a volunteer with need.

Such appears to be the strength of Service Year Alliance, which has announced its mission to “scale” national service to at least 200,000 young people in a paid year-long program of service to America by 2023. But, while apps are great, to scale, an organization like Service Year Alliance needs a solid physical anchor on which to lash their potent digital ship. Like politics, all service is local. Service Year Alliance needs local infrastructure, trusted oversight, and community connection. The Legion has all three. It manages over 12,000 posts in all 50 states, which would place them third on the list of the largest fast food chains by location in America, behind only Subway and Starbucks. Just imagine if volunteerism in America scaled to roughly twice the reach of Taco Bell.

The Legion has also served for decades as a trusted agent in advising former military members through Veterans Administration claims and would be well-positioned to fill similar support roles in administering service programs. And their local roots make them an effective bridge from the national-level to the neighborhood-level.

Now is the time. America faces great challenges. Aging Baby Boomers, sky-rocketing health care costs, serious climate threats, and a fractured electorate. Against these, an American Volunteer Corps could do a lot of good.

If nothing else can bring us together, a significant expansion of shared service can. Ask anyone that’s been in a foxhole, and they’ll tell you that when you sweat and serve with someone else, you see them in a whole new light. Recent research has validated what many already knew before — the closer we come together as Americans, trust and faith in our democracy shoots way up. By expanding our definition of “veteran” once again — to someone who serves and sacrifices for others, not just on some far-off battlefield, but here at home too — would give the American Legion a new mission and new energy for its second century. And that’s a victory a whole lot of Americans would want to sign up for.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point and a professor of practice with Arizona State University. The views expressed are the author’s alone.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point and a professor of practice with Arizona State University. The views expressed are the author’s alone.

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