Friday, September 4 , 2015, 11:54 pm | Fair 63.0º




Mark Shields: Isn’t It Time We Americans Got to Know Each Other?

By Mark Shields |

The late Tom Pettit, who covered American politics so well for NBC News from John Kennedy in 1960 to Bill Clinton in 1992, was missed even more during this year’s uninspiring presidential campaign.

My personal favorite Tom Pettit professional moment was when he was interviewing Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, who served in the Cabinets of both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Butz, an unrelenting critic of the food stamps program then under his department, unloaded on the “greedy” exploiters of food stamps he and his people were chasing down.

Pettit asked Butz if he knew anyone who had used food stamps. Butz spoke about how he was no stranger to supermarkets, that he accompanied his wife on the grocery shopping and that he had personally seen people at the checkout counter paying with food stamps.

Pettit pressed Butz: Did the secretary know anyone — personally — who depended on food stamps to feed her children? After an extended silence, the obviously displeased agriculture secretary answered the question, “No.” The only thing that followed was the close: “Tom Pettit, NBC News, Washington.”

This anecdote reminds me why the military draft between 1940 and 1973 educated so many of us about what it meant to be an American and, more important, tells me why in the second decade of the 21st century the United States desperately needs every 18-year-old American to give two years of national service, military or civilian, to their country.

First, a personal note: At Parris Island, S.C., in Marine Corps boot camp, for the first time in my life I slept in the same quarters with African-Americans and took orders, as a matter of course, from African-Americans. In that boot camp platoon, there were six college graduates, four young men who, given the option by juvenile courts, had chosen to enlist rather than have the judge impose a sentence and one of us, who proved to be both a gentle giant and a superb rifleman, who had never gone beyond the eighth grade.

We were mostly Catholics from the North or Baptists from the South. But we also included four Jewish Marines and even a couple of, to the manor born, Episcopalians. After the longest 13 weeks of our lives, we all came to know that while our ancestors may have come to America at different times and in different ships, now we were all in the same boat — and that each of us was an American.

The draft — when three out of four male college graduates as well as high-school graduates served — guaranteed that Americans of all classes, all social strata and all areas of the country would shoulder the responsibility of defending their nation. And that in doing so they would rub shoulders with and — while sharing bunks, a weekend pass and, sometimes, even foxholes — get to know, and to depend upon, other Americans very different from themselves.

Which brings us back to a variation of Pettit’s great question of Butz: Do you, Mr. Commentator, or do you, Madame Senator, personally know anyone whom your arguments or your votes have sent into combat? Have you attended the funeral of anyone whom you personally knew who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan?

A “Support Our Troops” decal on your SUV or a flag pin in your lapel does not qualify. The American Establishment — political, economic, academic and journalistic — has next to no personal stake in men and women who risk their life and limbs to defend the United States. Our military is increasingly integrated by race and increasingly segregated by class.

Tragically, most Americans today only know people exactly like themselves. Universal national service would introduce Americans to each other and to what it means to be a citizen.

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.




comments powered by Disqus

» on 12.02.12 @ 11:36 AM

It would figure that Shields would support universal national service. Another way for govt to dictate what’s best for us. I wonder if there is any limit to what govt can do in Shield’s utopian world.

» on 12.02.12 @ 02:51 PM

Lou,
Although I often agree with you on many subjects, I disagree with you on this one. While voluntary service is preferable, Shields has a very valid point about mandatory national service. Why, in your mind, shouldn’t the government (the country as a society) expect its citizens to help preserve it?

Back in the day, we used to think of service to the country as being the normal price to pay for the privilege of living here. Now it seems like too many have idea that living here is a right and those that preserve that right through service to defend the country are dummies for volunteering to do so.

A requirement to serve in the military or something like a domestic peace corps would go a long way to have a populace that has some skin in the game instead of the situation that we now have.

» on 12.02.12 @ 10:32 PM

Hi Art, I don’t have a problem with serving your country either in the military or in some other arena; I just don’t like the compulsory part. Of course, if we are at war (with popular support) and the military needs to institute a draft, I could understand possibly making it compulsory.

My biggest problem with the concept is that it is highly likely the 2 years of service would probably be far less than productive considering the programs will be govt-run. Also, there is no shortage of young people applying for public service programs like the Peace Corps, Teach for America, Americorps, etc. If there more worthwhile national service programs available to our youth, I am sure there would be sufficient demand for them without the compulsory part.

» on 12.03.12 @ 06:40 PM

A very succinct and insightful column.

Also, a revealing one.

Who’d have ever thought that Mark Shields served in the Marines?

Every presidential candidate always talks about mandatory national service for all Americans.

Funny that none of them, or Congress, ever get around to doing anything about
it.

Of course, when you’re spending all your waking hours trying to figure ways to
keep rich individuals or corporations for paying more anything, or ways to keep
recipients from making prudent decisions about their health, insurance, or
savings, you don’t have much time left for Big Picture ideas, do you?

Maybe after they deal with the Fiscal Cliff, Simpson-Bowles, Susan Rice, and
bailing out more reckless banks and NY investment houses, they can turn their
bi-partisan attention to Shields idea.

Who wants to wager a quarter that it will happen before 2020?

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

 

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.