WASHINGTON — Years before he was to be elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Virginia and when he was still very much a Reagan Republican, Jim Webb — who as a Marine rifle platoon and company commander in Vietnam had earned the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts — condemned the total separation of Americans in power in Washington from Americans in mortal peril in the Persian Gulf.
His words still ring true: “If the U.S. military was truly representative of the country, you would have people going through the roof right now.” The impersonal detachment of civilian policy planners and think-tank guerrillas toward American soldiers and Marines in harm’s way clearly outraged Jim Webb: “Their attitude strikes me as, ‘You volunteered. You took the money. Shut up and die.’”
Of the 535 members of Congress in office when Ronald Reagan was running for the White House, 412 of them — because of the draft law in force between 1940 and 1973 — had served in the U.S. military. In the current Congress, just 103 have worn their nation’s uniform. Does military service influence the public policy choices of a politician? Consider this: Only one major presidential candidate in the two most recent national elections made the outlawing of all forms of torture of prisoners of war his cause.
He happened to be the only presidential candidate who, as a prisoner of war, had himself been tortured: John McCain.
One real benefit of the draft was that it meant that practically every American family had a profoundly personal interest in U.S. foreign policy. War was not an abstraction. War was not a spectator sport. War could — and did — kill people you knew and loved and make others into widows and orphans.
This included the children of the powerful and the privileged. During World War II, Marine Sgt. Peter G. Saltonstall, son of the Massachusetts Republican senator; Lt. Peter G. Lehman, son of New York’s Democratic governor; Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., son of the U.S. ambassador to England; and 18-year-old Stephen Hopkins, the son of President Franklin Roosevelt’s closest White House adviser, were killed in combat. Republican Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts became the first U.S. senator since the Civil War to resign from the Senate to enlist in the military, which he did to become a tank commander to fight the Germans in North Africa.
Today in the place of any required or expected equality of sacrifice, we have substituted the ornamental “patriotism” of Old Glory lapel pins and bumper stickers.
We Americans enacted and accepted our first national income tax in order to pay for the Civil War. Both world wars dramatically increased both the number of Americans paying taxes and the rates at which we paid. What do we now ask of ourselves and each other? Bigger and better tax cuts, especially for the most advantaged among us. Talk about sacrifice.
War is hellish and hateful. But even more so must be the hypocrite who endorses, even demands, war while avoiding any personal risk to himself, his relatives, or his friends. When national policy dictates the sending of American troops into combat, then national defense becomes literally every American’s business and every American’s responsibility.
By now, we must have learned from painful experience that a nation’s strength is ultimately measured by the will and resolve of that nation’s people to stand together — in individual and collective sacrifice — for the common good.
Freedom is not free. A wise and just manpower policy is the foundation of our national defense. The volunteer military, its supporters agreed, was to be a peacetime service. When the nation went into battle, the draft would be resumed. The argument was direct: If the vital interests of the nation were worth fighting for, then we would not hesitate to ask all Americans to shoulder the responsibility and the risk of the fighting.
The United States military is, to its great credit, increasingly integrated by race, but, through no fault of its own, increasingly segregated by class. It is beyond time for all Americans to “put some skin in the game” in providing for our common defense. We know that a draft without exemptions that recruits the sons of affluence and influence will mean the civilian leadership of the country will demand a measured, extended, and public debate before any future, impulsive rush to war.
Mark Shields, who served in the Marines, is a commentator for the PBS “NewsHour.” Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.