Iraq war highlights a new divide in America


May 31, 2007

Speakers at the Memorial Day service I attended Monday mentioned our nation's lack of respect for the holiday -- how we use it as an excuse for more shopping, family barbecues and the year's first trip to the beaches. Not enough of us take a moment to honor our KIAs and MIAs. This has become standard and predictable criticism, and it's usually leveled by people from generations that fought wars in Europe and Asia or from military families who feel their fellow Americans are not sufficiently patriotic.

Monday marked the first time I attended a Memorial Day service in my hometown of East Bridgewater, Mass., in probably 35 years. Though many of the names and faces have changed, everything about it was familiar -- the gathering on the town common in the morning, the American Legion honor guard, local politicians, Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts, a reading of the Gettysburg Address, the high school band and two trumpeters who sounded echo taps.

And the comments about how too many Americans have forgotten the significance of the day -- that was eerily familiar as well.

In the early 1970s, the speakers at the town's Memorial Day observances said the same thing.

They took the nation's growing anger over the Vietnam War and distrust of military and elected leaders as disrespect for everything for which earlier Americans had sacrificed.

Things reached a boil one year -- I think it was May 1971 -- when a Unitarian minister who opposed the war confronted veterans who wanted to bring rifles onto the town common for the traditional 21-gun salute. It was an ugly scene, and in that instant the town -- and nation -- seemed irreparably divided.

I remember what people said at the time -- that the minister had no business exploiting the national day of remembrance with his anti-war protest. Memorial Day was not the time for such antics, his critics said. The minister countered by saying that it was time to stop the killing in Vietnam and bring American troops home. Honor the dead by saving the living, he argued.

This year, in the same setting, with things so eerily familiar, there was no such demonstration, and the service was peaceful.

Still, some speakers noted the lack of full reverence for Memorial Day -- too many citizens too busy to turn out for parades and placing wreaths -- and one of them wondered why such an important holiday seemed to be losing its popularity.

I don't have the answer in a single, simple sentence.

We are a busy people. We are a consumer culture. We like our free time. A lot of us just don't want to be bothered with old-school ceremony. We have other things to do.

Al Gore, author of The Assault on Reason, is correct -- there is too much television-watching in America, and not enough Americans engaged in their duties as citizens. There is a lack of thinking in our society, a limited appreciation of the nation's history and probably not enough adults making sure their kids comprehend the sacrifices men and women made while serving the country in decades gone by.

But I also think this is a major factor: no draft.

George Bush's war in Iraq does not directly affect as many Americans as did Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon's war in Vietnam. We have not had a draft since 1973. Because of this, the country is divided in a way we are only starting to appreciate.

"The real `two Americas,' wrote Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, the online magazine, "are not rich versus poor or religious versus secular but military versus civilian."

He added, "There is not even a pretense of shared responsibility for defending the country."

And so the war in Iraq continues, with spineless Democrats in Congress giving the president additional funding for his spring/summer "surge" and more death predicted in the coming months. Congress' vote for more billions pretty much nullified the message in the November election, and while there were howls from the anti-war crowd, the level of protest has not matched the anti-war sentiment registered in poll after poll.

We don't like this war, and we want the troops home, but we're only willing to go so far with our efforts as citizens to make this happen. Not enough of us have a son or daughter in the fight. Even with manpower and resources stretched thin, the Bush administration really doesn't want to inconvenience anyone but military families; the president and vice president know that a draft would further diminish support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. With more Americans serving the country in the military, Congress might not be so compromising, and there would be a greater sense of urgency to reach a settlement.

The lack of a military draft also explains the lack of Americans who come out on Memorial Day to honor those who have died and those who still serve at risk of harm and death.

We have a new divide in America, highlighted by the war in Iraq. Where once the nation asked everyone to sacrifice in some way for a greater and verifiable good, we now send only those who have volunteered into battle, however dubious. Most of the rest of us, on Memorial Day and other days, have other things to do.

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