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

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.

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