Waiting for the wealthy to sacrifice in this war

January 26, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

IN HIS STATE of the Union address, President Bush declared the nation still at war.

That's not quite true.

A part of the nation is at war - a slice of America where patriotism runs deeper than pockets, where parents don't belong to country clubs and children don't attend exclusive private schools. The duty of defending the nation has largely fallen to the less affluent; the all-volunteer military is disproportionately drawn from blue-collar homes.

If the war on terror were as important as the president claims - and the threat of Islamist fanatics a danger that will confront us for at least a generation - you'd think that military service would have taken on more urgency among Americans of all income brackets.

But it hasn't.

There has been no marked upturn in military recruitment since the terrorist atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001.

Without a draft, affluent Americans have felt free to turn their attention to other matters - the stock market, the tax-deductible Range Rover, the children's chances for admission to an exclusive college. The deaths of more than 500 American soldiers in Iraq have stirred little comment among the chattering classes, whose children are not at risk.

"People are forgetting," said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University. "We're not losing the sons and daughters of America's leaders, but basically minorities and working-class whites."

The all-volunteer military, unlike the Vietnam-era draft, doesn't draw from the poorest of the poor, either. High-tech weaponry demands recruits who are literate and disciplined. White recruits tend to come from families with a median income of $33,500 a year, while black recruits tend to hail from families with a median income of about $32,000 annually.

"Affluenza" and the loosening of civic ties have dampened the sense of duty that might otherwise compel children of the middle class to join the military. You rarely see graduates of Harvard or Yale signing up for the Marines. They're headed for Wall Street or law school. Nor is it typical for children of the affluent to dream of attending a military academy.

Americans have abandoned the "ancient republican tradition that citizenship entailed a duty to contribute to the nation's defense," writes Boston University Professor Andrew J. Bacevich, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, in his analysis of U.S. power, American Empire.

"Increasingly, the high regard that middle-class Americans accorded to those volunteering for military service was akin to that which American Catholics felt for fellow believers who embraced the celibacy of religious life: A choice worthy of the highest respect, it was also peculiar to the point of being unfathomable. For most people, that choice was one that they preferred to see someone else's son or daughter make," Mr. Bacevich writes.

Perhaps because other people's sons and daughters were going off to war, Congress voted overwhelmingly to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq. Perhaps for the same reason, Congress now seems unconcerned about the increasingly clear evidence that the president made false claims in promoting this war.

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a critic of the Iraq war strategy, has noted the lack of combat experience in the White House and among the Defense Department's top hands.

"They were my contemporaries. They should have been there [Vietnam], and they found a way not to serve," General Zinni has said. "And where are their kids? Are their kids serving? My son is in the Marines."

So far, patriotism among the affluent classes has amounted to sticking an American flag decal on the tax-deductible Hummer. But a continuing war on terror - if, indeed, the threat is as grave as the president says - will require greater sacrifices from all Americans. There simply are not enough blue-collar soldiers to do all the fighting and dying for the rest of us.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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