In his wonderful book The Nightingale’s Song, author Robert Timberg, himself a decorated Marine combat veteran of Vietnam, wrote of the fault line within his own generation of 27 million American men who came of military draft age between 1964 and 1973 (when the draft was ended at the urging of President Richard Nixon). More than 16 million of those American males avoided military service by means honorable or dishonorable, legal or extra-legal.
Timberg made no effort to conceal his personal contempt for the “chicken-hawks” — men whose testosterone glands miraculously began pumping after age 26, when their own exposure to the draft passed. Swaggering tough talk was their style, as they often adopted the jargon of the combat they, themselves, had gone to great lengths to avoid.
Military service has mattered. In every presidential election since World War II, one or both presidential nominees has worn his country’s uniform. This year, 2012, breaks that streak. Neither President Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has ever served in the United States military.
Obama was just 12 years old when the military draft was terminated. But he apparently never considered volunteering to serve.
Romney was one of the 27 million American men who came of draft age during the Vietnam War. Born in 1947, Romney left Stanford University after his freshman year for a demanding two-year Mormon mission in France about which he has said: “There surely were times on my mission when I was having a particularly difficult time accomplishing very little when I would have longed for the chance to be serving in the military, but that was not to be.”
Easy there, Mitt. Nobody is arguing that seeking converts by knocking on unwelcoming strangers’ doors for 12 hours every day in a foreign country is any day at the beach. But if you, a self-described strong supporter of the U.S. war in Vietnam, “longed” in 1968 as you returned from your mission to serve in the military, all you had to do was walk into your corner recruiting station and take the oath.
From personal experience, I can testify that in the 1960s if you could see lightning and hear thunder, the American military was thrilled to have you.
Now we are, sadly, a nation of chicken-hawks loudly beating the drums of war. Today’s fashion is a perverse strain of “patriotism-lite,” which prominently features American flags in our lapels and on our gas-guzzlers, but with our all-out opposition to paying as much as another dime in taxes to cover the costs of the war or the care of our fellow Americans who fight it.
In the last decade, this nation, under two presidents of different parties, has for the first time in 166 years waged war without a military draft to provide manpower and without tax increases to pay for it. All the sacrifice and all the suffering have been done by fewer than 1 percent of Americans, while our leaders have asked us to pay no price, to bear no burden, to endure no hardship.
The strength of a nation, we know through the pain of history, is determined by that nation’s resolve to stand together for the common good through individual and universal sacrifice.
Conservative author Michael Barone has written, “War demands equality of sacrifice.” Our generation has now repealed that great American value.
The dedication and the excellence of the American volunteer military is unarguable. What is clear is an all-volunteer military is bad public policy for the nation. In the words of respected military journalist George Wilson’s combat veteran: “An army doesn’t fight a war, a country fights a war. ... And if a country is not willing to fight a war, it should never send an army.”
Will either of our nonveteran nominees have the courage to tell us that war is not a spectator sport and that citizenship includes responsibilities as well as rights? I hope so.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.