Unshared sacrifice

April 19, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Reading biographical profiles of dead American soldiers, I am struck, always, by their ages - 22 or 19 or 24. For most, childhood is all they get; their lives end even as their adulthood begins.

Usually they come from families of modest means, strivers looking to serve their country but also to gain technical training or college scholarships. In this group, graduates of Harvard or Yale or Duke are rare.

Rare, too, are children of those policy-makers who decided this war was necessary. President Bush's twin daughters are not enrolled in ROTC. When the U.S. Senate voted to give the president the authority to invade Iraq, only one senator - South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson - had a son or daughter in the enlisted ranks. No more than five members of the House have children in the military.

As violence in Iraq ebbs and flows, American support for the occupation does as well. But the constant is this: The soldiers risking their lives rarely come from affluent families. The median income of the families of recruits is $35,000 a year for whites and $32,000 for blacks.

Even as a conservative movement grows on college campuses across the country, young conservatives - though they may be vociferous supporters of the invasion of Iraq - don't seem to volunteer for the military in any greater number than young liberals. Conservative collegians work in GOP campaigns, denounce liberal college professors, join the Federalist Society. But, like their liberal counterparts, they are headed for Wall Street or law school, not Fort Stewart or Camp Lejeune.

It is unconscionable that this republic could be so cavalier about duty and sacrifice, sending its poorer sons and daughters off to defend liberty for the rest of us. 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: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy.

Yet, when Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, wrote a newspaper essay in December 2002 that called for a return to military conscription, he was met with widespread denunciations.

"I believe that if we are going to send our children to war, the governing principle must be that of shared sacrifice," wrote Mr. Rangel, a Korean War veteran.

Critics called his proposal "class warfare"; Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld went so far as to blast earlier drafts as failures, saying draftees "added no value," a statement for which he later apologized.

But the U.S. armed forces are now stretched too thin to cover all the obligations brought on by our imperial ambitions. With increased levels of insurgency in Iraq, the Pentagon has been forced to concede that it cannot draw down U.S. soldiers and leave security to poorly trained Iraqi troops; indeed, more U.S. soldiers may be required. So the military has refused to allow soldiers who have completed their tours to return to civilian life. (If that isn't a draft, what is?)

It is a peculiar war on terror that requires so little sacrifice from most Americans. While the president declares this a paramount struggle against "the enemies of civilization," he knows most of us will cheer from the sidelines. He doesn't suggest we conserve fuel, reducing our dependence on foreign oil. He doesn't ask us to come up with the funds to raise military pay. He doesn't even ask us to pay for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq; his huge tax cuts have placed that enormous burden on the backs of future generations.

Perhaps this broad war on terror can be won just this way, but I doubt it. Sooner or later, the rest of us will have to make some contribution to defending our own freedom.

Unfortunately, none of our political leaders is preparing us for that moment.

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

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