To those of us fortunate enough to have known him, the late Tom Pettit was much more than the award-winning NBC News reporter who was the only television journalist on the air live at the Dallas City Jail on Nov. 24, 1963, when Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald.
In addition to being grand company on the campaign trail, Pettit in a televised interview with then-Agriculture Secretary — and fierce critic of his agency’s Food Stamps program — Earl Butz provided an object lesson in how to practice journalism to all the rest of us.
After Butz had railed against the “greedy” exploiters of Food Stamps he was hunting down, Pettit asked him if he knew anyone who was a food stamps recipient. Butz told of how he, a proudly liberated male, went grocery shopping with his wife where, yes, he saw people using food stamps.
Pettit persisted. “Did the secretary know anyone who was on food stamps? Personally know anybody who depended on food stamps to feed her family? After a long silence from the secretary, a muttered “No.” Then he signed off, clearly, “Tom Pettit, NBC News Washington.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the first since this country’s war against Mexico that the United States has waged without either a military draft or tax increases. If, as conservative scholar Michael Barone has written, “war demands equality of sacrifice,” then the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have failed that standard.
All the sacrifice and all the suffering have been borne by fewer than 1 percent of our citizens — those who serve in the U.S. military and their loved ones. The U.S. military, today living and sleeping in harm’s way, is increasingly — and admirably — integrated by race and increasingly segregated by economic and social class.
Those policymakers, both elected and unelected, who made — and make — the fateful decision to take this nation to war are themselves exempt from any personal consequences. Their own children and the children of their friends will not be put at risk.
With no apparent embarrassment, U.S. civilian leaders — including those in journalism — continue to urge a national policy of military escalation with no personal participation.
Where is today’s Pettit to confront any of those men and women who sit in the country’s war councils with the question they do not want to answer: “Tell me, sir (or madam), do you know anyone — personally know anyone, by name — whom you are sending into combat?” Or, “Do you know anyone socially or personally who has lost a son or daughter or spouse in either Iraq or Afghanistan? … Did you go to the funeral?”
A wise and just manpower policy remains the foundation of this nation’s national defense. The late Charles Moskos of Northwestern University, the nation’s pre-eminent military sociologist (and an Army draftee after he graduated from Princeton), gave this wise and timeless insight: “The answer to the question of what are vital national interests is found not so much in the cause itself. … Only when the privileged classes perform military service, only when the elite youth are on the firing line, does the country define the cause as worth young people’s blood, and do war losses become acceptable.”
Moskos concluded that “citizens accept hardships only when their leadership is viewed as self-sacrificing.” That’s when all of us, leaders and followers, personally know someone in uniform putting his or her life at risk in Afghanistan or Iraq.
— 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.