E Pluribus Unum – A Rallying Cry for National Service

This post previously appeared in Real Clear Defense.

 

The Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One – is our de facto national motto. It was a rallying cry of our founders as they built a single unified nation from a collection of states. It’s a good reminder of where we need to go.

Today as our country struggles to find the common threads that bind us, we need unifying, cohesive, collective, and shared national experiences to bring the country together again.

Here’s what we’ve done to get started.

And why I did it.

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Pete Newell, Joe Felter and I met over coffee in 2016 to discuss our common goal – how to get students in research universities who would never consider working on national security problems engaged in keeping the country safe and secure.

Today, our contribution to national service, Hacking for Defense, turned five years old. In this class, students learn about the nation’s emerging threats and security challenges while working with innovators inside the Department of Defense.

The result? The class teaches students entrepreneurship while they engage in what amounts to national public service. From our single class at Stanford, Hacking for Defense is now taught at 47 U.S. universities having graduated 500 teams and 2,000+ students.

Why Serve?
My interest in starting Hacking for Defense was rooted in my long belief in service – not just paying taxes or voting, but actual service. I had a great career as an entrepreneur, but always believed that at some point in your life you need to serve others – whether it’s God, country, community, or family. And I did so in my stints in the military and public service and as an educator.

Disconnection
Looking back it’s clear that our country was far more cohesive when millions of us had to physically share space and live and work with others who didn’t think like us or talk like us. The Air Force turned out to be the first melting pot I would encounter (Silicon Valley the next) where individuals from different classes and culture had the opportunity to share a common goal and move beyond the environment they grew up in. At each base I was stationed in, I hung out with a group that tutored each other, read books together, went on adventures together and learned together. And while most of us came from totally different backgrounds (before the Air Force, I never knew you put salt on watermelon, that Spam was food or muffuletta was a sandwich), as far as the military was concerned, we were all the same.

But a half-century ago, the country started to disconnect from each other and our government when we eliminated national service. In 1973, near the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. ended compulsory military service and has since depended on an all-volunteer military.

One result of this experiment: the risk for the sons and daughters being sent into harm’s way is no longer evenly distributed across all segments of society. Many American families no longer have a personal vested interest in our nation’s decisions about foreign policy.

The unintended consequence of this decoupling is seemingly perpetual wars (we’ve been in Afghanistan for two decades). And with our country focused for two decades on fighting non-nation states – Al-Qaida and Isis – Russia re-armed and China has built weapons that have negated our strengths, matched our military, and threaten democracy around the world.

Even more corrosive to the nation is that without any type of mandatory national or public service – not just military service – we eliminated any unifying, cohesive, collective, shared national experience, or shared values.

Values
Instead our values are shaped by what we read on social media, where we find an echo-chamber of others who think like we do. Technology that was supposed to bring us together has instead sold out the country for partisanship and division, for profit over national interest. Others found it politically and/or financially profitable to create distrust in the government institutions that protect and bind us. The result is that we’re easy targets for disinformation by adversaries intent on undermining our government and its institutions.

The world isn’t a benign place. Our freedoms and values need to be defended. Throughout history the capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another has proved endless. My parents, along with millions of others, lost parents, siblings, and extended family in Nazi-occupied Europe. Volunteering for national service for me was a partial payback for the country that welcomed them, sheltered them, adopted them, and allowed them to become Americans. And as much as we wish it and try, we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes or even in our children’s lifetimes. Today, the struggle for freedom and human rights continues across the globe. Ask the Uighurs, or the people in Hong Kong or Tibet what happens when their freedom is extinguished.

A Contribution to National Service
Five years ago, listening to Pete and Joe talk about the problems the Department of Defense (DoD) faced reminded me of what I noticed inside the parts of the government where I was now spending time. While there were smart, dedicated people serving their country, few of students from the schools I was teaching at were there. Few of my students knew what the DoD or other branches of government did. It just wasn’t part of their lives.

It dawned on us that building on the last national curriculum I created – the National Science Foundation I-Corps, we could hit the ground running and create our own version of a national service. We envisioned a national Hacking for Defense program across 50 universities.

It’s taken five years, but I’m proud we’ve accomplished just that. The class is now adding 1,000+ students a year, many of them choosing to change career paths to work in national service or the public sector after graduation.

Still, there’s much more we can and must do.

While my entrepreneurial career allowed me to work with people who built great products and companies, my national and public service careers connected me to those who’ve dedicated their lives to serving others. And I’ve concluded that a life lived in full measure will do both.

We need to scale the existing national and public service initiatives –AmeriCorps, YouthBuild, PeaceCorps,U.S. Digital Service, Defense Digital Service, and conservation corps– that today only reach 100,000 people. We need to offer every high school and college graduate – all 4 million of them – a shared national experience.

In the face of forces working to tear us apart, we must remember that we are stronger together, more resilient together, more successful together, than we are apart. Our challenge is to bring unity back to a nation that is built on different backgrounds and beliefs. E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One.

Hacking for Defense is our contribution to what hopefully will be a much larger effort to help unify the country.

Lessons Learned

  • E Pluribus Unum– Out of Many, One
  • We need to find the common threads that bind us
  • We need unifying, cohesive, collective, and shared national experiences and values will help bring the country together again
  • Hacking for Defense is our contribution

16 Responses

  1. I love this. I’ve been thinking about service to my fellow Americans differently for a couple of years now.
    What are some of the paths to service for people who are several years out of college?

  2. Not only no, hell no. The government coercing people into “service” is not the solution to our problems. It is hard to envision a worse idea. It will be a waste of several years of young people’s lives. Freedom works. Our problem is too many people have abandoned freedom as the foundation of a great nation.

    • Wrong sir. Our current Government is “coercing” our citizens and youth into believing that our foundational constitutiuon is maleable. Voting in this country is a sacred right. Our servicemen and servicewoman have shed their blood for this right. IMHO, the right to vote should be earned. Service is one way. Volunteerisn is a gift. Our first amendmant allows all citizens their opinion.

    • Baloney!

  3. Bravo Sir. Well said and needs to be said everyday. Especially with our youth, K-8. As a founder in digital social trech, my purpose is to get our youth enaged in service. There are forces being aligned to disrupt our founders vision. Corporate America is becoming woke and some of our CEO leadership corrupting their cicic responsibility for Mammon. . Keep up the good fight.

  4. Steve,

    Firstly, thank you for a rallying cry that so eloquently touches both: logic and emotions. It’s time to expand the reach beyond academia and aim for Main Street, too.

    The threats you described are not only real but also escalating at a much greater speed than ever before. And appeasing China, Russia, or Iran – is not the answer. UK’s Chamberlain tried to appease Nazis before WWII and one doesn’t hear anymore how much the British government was “proud” of his achievements.

    So, let’s not be fooled by the “fake” capitalism of China or the “crony” capitalism of Putin. And it’s not a far stretch to realize that the “disinformation by adversaries undermining our government and its institutions” is not random. It is a deliberate attempt to bring division and to promote profit over national interest.

    Warren Buffett once brilliantly said: “Predicting rain doesn’t count; building arks… does!”. In your case, you have already built the ark, Steve, and the phenomenal rollout of your “Hacking for Defense” programs – proves my point. So, instead of gathering more lumber for the next ark to build – I would strongly recommend taking your voice of reason to the much broader political sphere…

    The world needs more Steve Blanks, not less, in our Congresses, Senates, Parliaments, and/or Presidential offices. And it’s a win-win move, too. Even if you lose, there is a huge benefit in talking about such urgent issues during the elections. The massive outreach sure bits the posting, or the podcasting to select few…

    And do I really need to remind one of the most accomplished and admired Entrepreneurs on the planet what another well-known entrepreneur advised us, too? It was Richard Branson who once said: “Always shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you end up among the stars”…

  5. I served in the Vietnam War Era draftee converted to Volunteer Army. I am a VMI grad, so I was a combat engineer officer who served with very good units all over the world. I probably got as broad a taste of our army at the troop level as anybody in that time period.

    The draft was a crooked operation from the beginning. Infamous chaps like Cheney, Clinton, Trump, Biden all avoided service by means of raw influence, gaming the system, and lying.

    This says something about a man’s heart, soul, and guts. Not something flattering.

    The draftee army was a good army — when well led and disciplined — but the Volunteer Army — which took a long time to finds its footing — is a better army.

    Right now, we have a social engineered petri dish army led by political generals who are more focused on transgender issues than the lethality of our force and training for the next war. Our army is unable to fight and win two wars in two different theaters simultaneously.

    You will recognize that as being the strategic platform for the US military since World War II which was abandoned during the Obama admin.

    Today, we have a poorly led 420,000 man Army (at the peak of Vietnam we had 3MM and more than 400K deployed in theater) which has as many generals as we did at the end of WWII when we had 13MM men under arms.

    As evidence I submit the total inability of the US military to defeat a rag tag, third world, light infantry in the person of the Taliban. In 20 years with air supremacy, superior weapons, overwhelming fire support, gobs of ammo, unlimited violence, massive battlefield intel, unimpeded supply, gobs of money, and more troops our generals have been unable to find a strategy to defeat this inferior opponent.

    This was the final exam and our generals failed spectacularly.

    This does not bode well for future tangling with the Chinese or Russians.

    I say all this to note that the idea of national service is good, but it has to be executed with a better strategy than we have in the past. I am a huuuuuuuuge supporter of national service. Huge.

    I like your project and wish you great success. Know that VMI has been involved in this national defense stuff since 1839.

  6. Hi Steve,

    I definitely agree with this statement:

    “The world isn’t a benign place. Our freedoms and values need to be defended.”

    My view is that fundamentally a nation’s people are united by their common values and aspirational ideals, and in aggregate across a nation, this unity of people’s ideals and purpose can be indomitable.

    It has become obvious to me that over the past decade or so there has been a powerful and growing silent campaign to undermine and progressively fracture global western values of democracy, liberty and freedom. The US and its global allies all need to be strongly vigilant and do everything possible to guard against this insidious fracturing campaign.

    A national service is a powerful way to train the young minds of a nation’s citizens to more easily recognise the patterns of this insidious fracturing campaign, so when it appears, these citizens can either dismiss it, taking away its power, or take action to counter it.

    All the best,

    Rohan Fernando

  7. Agree completely. And service doesn’t have to be entirely full time active duty. I am not sure that a full time draftee army/navy/air force is desirable, but there is no reason the Guard and Reserves couldn’t be. Also, what about the medical service. If it included not just doctors, but also EMTs, Paramedics, PAs, etc. it would provide a foundation for handling the next health crisis and can help alleviate the rural health care problem. How about a service corps that fixes the National Park infrastructure? Or an Environmental Corps doing research and gathering data for research?

    And finally, college attendance could delay individual service for up to 6 years while attending, but WOULD NOT provide an escape.

    And women must also serve equally.

  8. As someone from the target demographic of this work, I have a few things I’d like to say.

    First, many bright minds never make it this far. The education system in this country is in shambles (I’ve spent years trying to push curriculum reform at my university) and many ideal candidates who are simply looking to do meaningful work opt out of this broken system.

    As such, I believe the an demographic to reach here is highschoolers. Shop classes are going extinct but the need for skilled system administrators will only continue to grow. Young people are also extremely financially unstable and this is an excellent lifeline.

    Second, I was unaware this program even existed in my state until I read this post. Despite being at the flagship university, I have no idea how to get involved because it’s offered at a different school. I highly doubt anything is taught in this class that I cannot find on google; in today’s world, the value of such programs is the accreditation of the student’s learning rather than the content. I earned my GSEC for this reason. External validation is how standards are formed. I’d love to see what kind of content is being taught if I knew where to look.

    I know an emeritus faculty at my university who has been considering doing something similar to this for the same patriotic reasons. Maybe the program could make sense at my school; while I might be sold, the information available from the page does not provide someone like me with the right data points to then forward on to decision makers or gauge which faculty members might find the program interesting.

    Cheers,
    MC

    PS. Matt Stoller’s blog has some of the best information on the internet about how government contracting has broken down since the Cold War due to bureaucratic reshuffling.

  9. Mr. Blank, Congratulations on your great accomplishment. Ideas and hopes are myriad their realization difficult. I also salute the spirit of your work. It seems there are many acting to divert the ideals of our founders by trying to make many from one. History has not been kind to such divisiveness in the past. Our strength comes from unity in a greater purpose. Your efforts certainly have embellished that strength.

  10. I’m interested in using lean innovation in the federal government. Does anyone know any contacts to reach out to that has brought lean innovation into the Fed space?

  11. Couldn’t agree more, Steve.

    We’ve been doing this in Congress with my organization, TechCongress, placing computer scientists, engineers, and other technologists on Capitol Hill: https://www.techcongress.io/

    There’s also a great effort to build the public interest technology ecosystem through other engagements with universities: https://www.newamerica.org/pit/university-network/about-pitun/

    Congrats on the anniversary and looking forward to seeing it continue to grow.

  12. Government coercion for such national service is unacceptable. However, offering the opportunity in exchange for student loan debt reduction would certainly merit discussion.

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