Let the well-off share the burden

May 31, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- The other day President Bush stated the painfully obvious: "Our work in Iraq has been hard."

But his suggestion of a national mission -- a cause to which all Americans are making a substantial contribution -- was misleading. The hard work of fighting and dying in Iraq has been done by a few -- the sons and daughters of the working classes. The affluent have hardly been troubled unless they tune in to the nightly newscasts.

The frantic calls to in-laws to scrape together child care before shipping out, the desperate planning to keep the painting business together while the owner is in uniform, the wives' attempts to fend off unpaid bills while the soldiers, fighting a distant war, fend off rocket-propelled grenades -- those burdens have been borne by families with modest paychecks and scant savings. So have the grieving and the burying.

The all-volunteer military is drawn from a relatively small slice of America, from families more likely to work at Wal-Mart than on Wall Street, from young men and women more likely to drive a Hyundai than a Hummer. Enlistees tend to come from households with incomes between $32,000 and $33,500, according to a 1999 Defense Department study.

Commissioned officers tend to come from slightly more affluent backgrounds, but graduates of trendy private schools and exclusive colleges are rare in the officer corps.

(Before you begin scripting your e-mail protest, let me state for the record that I know that there are exceptions, including former football star Pat Tillman. Why do you think there was so much coverage of Specialist Tillman's death? He was a rare example of sacrifice by the affluent.)

Of all the discordant notes about this war, this is among the most jarring: While President Bush insists, rightly, that the war on terror will last for generations and require great sacrifices, he has asked few Americans to make any. The president won't even ask the wealthy to pay for the war. Instead, he gave them a hefty tax cut.

In that climate of indulgence of the well-off, it's no surprise that neither the Bush administration nor Congress wants to consider a draft. The Pentagon, which always resists change, continues to insist it doesn't want to resume the draft (it also fought ending the draft), even as it becomes increasingly clear that troop strength is stretched to the breaking point. And that doesn't begin to count the needs here on the home front, where legions of young men and women could be put to work guarding ports, nuclear sites and borders.

In an essay in The Washington Monthly shortly after the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, the magazine's editor, Paul Glastris, and military sociologist Charles Moskos wrote:

"Not only are we not drafting our young men, we are not even planning to draft them. ... That terrorists might poison municipal water supplies, spray anthrax from crop dusters, or suicidally infect themselves with smallpox and stroll through busy city streets is no longer considered far-fetched. That we might need to draft some of our people to counter these threats -- now that's considered far-fetched."

Armchair warmongers have denounced draft proponents such as Mr. Moskos and Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, declaring their motives suspect: War critics support conscription knowing its unpopularity would doom any war effort. Wrong. Many strategists have begun to suggest that a draft may be necessary because the U.S. military is too small to confront new threats while also carrying out its current obligations.

But human nature also suggests that Congress (and the press) might have questioned this dubious pre-emptive war more aggressively if the sons and daughters of the affluent classes were subject to conscription. Freedom isn't free, someone has said. But if you're wealthy and well-connected, it's pretty cheap.

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

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