Anecdotal Evidence .

Monday, November 27, 2006

What It Means To Serve

Consider this. A few weeks ago, while campaigning successfully for re-election to Maine’s 2nd Congressional District seat, Mike Michaud was asked by a reporter from Maine Public Television where he stood on the flag burning issue. “It’s my flag!” he responded with vehemence, insisting that no one had better burn an American flag in his presence! Clearly, the candidate wanted there to be no doubt about the depth and the fervor of his patriotism. Given that, I was surprised to learn that, according to his biography at the official congressional website, Mike Michaud has never served in the military.

And this. In a town not far from where I live in rural Maine, there is a used car dealership that flies above its sales lot the largest American flag I have seen anywhere in the world. It is, quite literally, gigantic. Two years ago, the owner of this dealership ran for a state office. His campaign website was decorated top to bottom, edge to edge, with American flags and patriotic slogans. But when I called his campaign office to inquire, I was told that the candidate had never served a day in the military.

And again. A couple of years ago, I attended a school board meeting in our small town in which the performance of the faculty was being considered. During the discussion, I asked the board how many of the teachers at our school are veterans of military service. None of the half dozen board members knew for sure, but they agreed the number was probably zero.

These situations are symptoms of a condition in America that I believe is extremely troubling. And to a large extent, I believe it is a result of our having abolished the draft in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam.

This generation of America’s youth knows that it will never be called upon to defend and protect the rights and privileges associated with being an American citizen. And the trouble with that is that it degrades the quality and health of the nation’s democracy. Unless every generation of a democracy knows that it will be called upon to be involved, actively involved, one way or another, in the nation’s life, they will not understand the true value of the rights and privileges they enjoy, they will come to take them for granted, and the democracy will eventually sicken, and, God forbid, die.

Thus, I am convinced that America should reinstate the draft, and that this time, the loopholes and deferments and exceptions which were too generously available to the rich and advantaged during the Vietnam era, should not be repeated. I do not particularly care whether a reinstated draft would require that all Americans serve a tour of duty in the military, although I think a strong argument can be made for that, but I do care that the youth of each generation of Americans be required to serve the country in some way.

I have read that the nation’s generals prefer the all-volunteer military, presumably because they believe that it is more highly motivated, more easily disciplined, and more likely to perform in a more professional manner.

But this issue is too important to be left to the generals, for it is not just about the military; it is about the health of the nation, the health of the democracy, and that must take precedence over every other consideration. Because if our democracy sickens, what difference will it make how motivated or disciplined or professional is our military.

Consider the war in Iraq. The other day, speaking on television about Iraq, someone observed, “the country is not at war, the Pentagon is at war”. And it’s true. The lives of most Americans have not been affected by the war in Iraq, and are not likely to be affected. Every day, every single day, American men and women are dying and being maimed in Iraq, and yet who among us takes any notice? Without the draft, none of us has to be involved, no one in our family and no one among our friends, has to be involved, so why should we take notice? We are told this is a war that involves the very survival of civilization, and yet nothing is asked of us.
That cannot be healthy for us as individuals or for us as a nation.

I have just finished reading "Flags of Our Fathers" by James Bradley. It is the compelling, even riveting, story of the six Marines who raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during World War II. But more than that, it is a powerful story about the Americans who fought throughout the Pacific and across Europe during World War II. These are the Americans who have recently been labeled “The Greatest Generation”, and rightly so, considering the bravery, the commitment, the determination, with which they responded in such great numbers to their nation’s, our nation’s, call. But surely too among “The Greatest Generation” must be included those Americans who served at home, on farms and in factories, to produce the food, the guns, the ships, the stuff those in uniform needed in order to prevail; and also those who participated simply by purchasing War Bonds, lending the nation the money it needed to pay for the war. Back then, the country was at war, not just the military, and the country responded to the call. There is none of that today. And it stinks.

In his book, James Bradley describes the fighting on Iwo Jima as fierce and ferocious. Indeed, this is one of the most disturbing books I have ever read about war. With good reason, Bradley calls those who fought there “heroes”. But he writes that his father, who was among those there, did not consider himself or the others to be heroes. Rather, “They were boys of common virtue. Called to duty. Brothers and sons. Friends and neighbors. And fathers. It’s as simple as that”.

As simple as that.