Service, sacrifice for all

May 12, 2004|By Stephen Budiansky

THE EXAMPLE of Pat Tillman, who turned down a $3.6 million NFL contract to enlist as an Army private and who died last month fighting in Afghanistan, is more than a story of one man's exceptional sacrifice: It is a story of one nation's loss of its moral compass.

In World War II, the historian (and ex-Marine) William Manchester recalled, "everybody who was fit went."

Sports heroes went - Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Joe Louis. Entertainers and movie stars went - Red Skelton, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Glenn Miller. And politicians and the sons of politicians went - Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., who resigned his Senate seat to become a tank commander in the African desert; even the president's son, Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., who earned a citation for bravery as a gunnery officer on a destroyer.

Among those killed in action in World War II were the sons of ambassadors and governors and congressmen and high government officials, including the 18-year-old son of FDR's close adviser and confidant, Harry Hopkins.

It was, simply, a disgrace not to serve if one could. It was a disgrace especially for a prominent or influential person to be even suspected of having used his prominence or influence to protect his family from the call to duty that the poor and anonymous had no choice but to heed.

What makes Mr. Tillman's story so poignant is not just his sacrifice; it is how rare it has become in today's American society. Among 435 congressmen and 100 senators, there is one - one - who has a son or daughter who served on active duty in Iraq: the son of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota. The professionalization of our armed forces has removed the outward stigma of not serving. It has done nothing to alter the underlying moral ill of a system in which the prominent and influential fail to share the burden.

Anyone who has spent time with our men and women in uniform today comes away awestruck by their dedication, professionalism, patriotism, decency and intelligence. But there is no escaping, as we read the rosters of the dead and see the names of their hometowns in western Pennsylvania or West Virginia or Texas, and read about their families and their struggles, that the elite in our society are not sharing the burden in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Pentagon says that the last thing it wants is to go back to a conscript armed forces. Sensing a sure loser, most politicians agree. Various proposals in recent years to institute a program of universal national service for all 18-year-olds have proved politically dead on arrival.

But it is time we started thinking seriously about it, especially at a time when it is clear we have taken on a burden of nation-building in Iraq that is stretching available military manpower to the very limit. Even conservative calculations suggest we need two or three times as many people in Iraq as we have there now if that country is to have a prayer of becoming secure and stable.

But there are other powerful arguments in favor of universal national service that go beyond any immediate manpower needs.

It is corrosive to the very fabric of a democracy that people of influence and power are so insulated from any risk of personal loss when our men and women in uniform are ordered into harm's way.

It is dangerous to the health of our military as an institution that there are not more people in uniform who come from all walks of life and who, for example, might be more inclined to protest the rare, but disastrous, wrongful order, rather than keep silent and look after their careers (as the recent prisoner abuse scandal has perhaps shown). And it is simply wrong and unjust that the burden of service and sacrifice should fall so disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged of our society.

Universal national service need not be confined to military service. Our nation's needs are huge: homeland security, failing inner-city schools, aging infrastructure, environmental problems.

Requiring every 18-year-old to give two years to his country would be a huge step toward reinstilling values that were once part of the very air we breathed as members of a democracy: that we all have a say, and a stake, in the direction our country takes, and that we all - rich and poor, prominent and anonymous, sons of presidents and sons of truck drivers - all share the responsibility that comes with freedom.

Stephen Budiansky is the author of Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II (Viking, 2004).

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