The sacrifice of nation's defense should be shared by all

April 27, 2003|By Richard O'Mara

THE ADVENTURE of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, the young soldier rescued from her Iraqi captors, has brought rapture to her family in West Virginia and joy to the country at large. But it recalls a problem identified in Vietnam that was never really properly dealt with, and a dangerous thing to leave unattended.

Private Lynch is from a family of limited means and a region of the United States perpetually depressed. She joined the Army to further her ambition to be a teacher. It was her way out, and up.

There have been many tens of thousands like Jessica Lynch over the years, young people who saw in the armed forces, if not a career, a path to a new kind of life: a way to save for college, learn a useful craft or trade, or otherwise find the right course. The Army, with its brusque and obstinate culture, often enables that. It did for me.

I went into the Army at age 19. My life was a muddle. I was a dropout who needed direction. It made me a radio operator, and I met a wide variety of interesting people who put good ideas into my head. One of those notions was that I might go to a university and do other exciting things.

The primary observation that Private Lynch's ordeal brings forth is that the children of the lower orders fight the wars while the progeny of the rich and well-positioned sit at home or spend the duration in military sinecures. This probably describes the way many Americans think about the way things are, if they do. The Vietnam War embedded that impression, and the demographics of the current U.S. armed services reinforce it.

They are made up, largely, of the children of the working class. Not the underclass; they can't meet the requirements of enlistment. Nor the upper class; they have better things to do.

Some people find this offensive, unhealthy for the nation. Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York told The New York Times, "It's just not fair that the people that we ask to fight our wars are people who joined the military because of economic conditions, because they have fewer options." Mr. Rangel wants the draft restored. This is an unpopular idea, but not necessarily a bad one.

The draft was abolished 30 years ago and the defense of the nation turned over to a professional military. It is a well-educated force compared with that deployed in Vietnam; all or most are high school graduates or better. They are proficient with complex technology, as their progress in the current war proves.

It is also diverse. About 60 percent white, 40 percent racial minorities; 15 percent are women. That would seem an acceptable level, but for the absence of the others - the students of the elite universities, the sons and daughters of professors, doctors, lawyers, business leaders, members of Congress and other political leaders. It is they whose presence should be requested in the barracks. They have the biggest stake in the society.

This is crucial if only to send the message that the defense of the nation is the duty of all and to discourage the growth of a sense of apartness from the larger society within the professional armed forces, and in this way to inhibit the development of a military caste.

Most Americans might regard such thoughts as unrealistic, even alarmist. But militarism has been rampant in the world throughout history, and still is. Why should we think our society immune to it?

Because we are a democracy? Japan and Germany enjoyed periods of representative government, and both succumbed to it.

Because we have a venerable Constitution? But the Constitution does not protect us from such things. Rather it is the obedience to it by the government, and the precedent set over the decades of manifest obedience, that does that. On that count, and especially since the war on terrorism was initiated, there have been reasons for concern.

The draft was an onerous regime, disruptive of young lives. But it had certain salutary effects on the nation - and on the military, among them a vast integration of the country's population of young men. It was in place during my service in the headquarters battery of an artillery battalion in Alaska.

The education level of the enlisted men in that unit was very near equal to that of the officer corps. This occasionally caused friction, but it also, I believe, raised the efficiency of our operations. And the perpetual rotation of new people fresh from civilian life, or returning to it, impressed upon us all, career non-coms, officers, draftees and regular Army enlisted alike, that we were all part of the same society. We were citizen soldiers, all.

Also, I suspect that the nation came to be better served by the many men with military experience who eventually reached the upper rungs of government. Today, the U.S. Senate has 35 members who served, the House 121 members. And some among these never knew active duty.

That number is lower than it used to be, for which reason Congress is bereft of many people with the experience to appreciate what the military needs to carry out its mission, and an inkling of what it does not need.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor and foreign correspondent of The Sun.

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