“The fundamental fact that we all have to be aware of is, when we go to war now, we send less than 1 percent of our population to war and they’re all volunteers and many of them are from working-class environments. And in the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nothing was asked of the rest of us. We didn’t pay any additional taxes. We didn’t have to think about those wars if we didn’t have anyone involved. … It’s not just unjust, it’s kind of immoral for a democratic republic to go to war under those terms because those young men and women and their families are paying the high price. They’re coming home emotionally damaged or physically damaged or, too often, in body bags. And we’ve got to have a national consciousness about that.”
Thus spoke Tom Brokaw, the self-styled scribe of the “Greatest Generation,” in promoting a forthcoming series of the “Brokaw files” for the Military Channel. This is not just the guilt of a political liberal, but the misunderstanding of a political class which is determined to pity the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as victims rather than regard them as the dedicated professionals that they are. If there is a “gap” in American civil-military relations, it is not because so few serve, it is because so few care to understand our military on its own terms.
We should listen more carefully. “We who are serving, and have served, demand not to be categorized as victims.” That’s how Marine Gen. John Kelly, now commander of U.S. Southern Command but also one of the finest combat leaders in Iraq – and a father who lost a son in Afghanistan – put it in a heartfelt and eloquent Memorial Day address. “What the experts and commentators are missing, what they will also never understand, is the sense of commitment, joy, and honor, of serving the nation in its uniform.”
No, we could not experience it, but we could strive to understand it better, to at least acknowledge it and appreciate it. God knows we rely upon it; fewer than one percent of us volunteer to don the uniform. But those who do choose to, and they find a meaning in their service – many meanings: in the ideal of America, in service to our nation as a union, as promise-keepers their comrades in arms, in the hopes they bring to the innocent, in the righteous justice they visit upon the evil – that is extraordinary and exalted.
War does damage those who fight, physically and emotionally. But failure to fight also can do damage, particularly to our sense of honor – a sense that remains a deep part of a “working-class environment” but for which elites now substitute a sense of irony. This environment is not the product of social or economic class. Four-star general Kelly, a man of serious intellect as well as tested leadership, still sounds like the Boston Irish that he is. But Nate Krissoff, the son of an orthopedic surgeon, product of an expensive California prep school and Williams College was inspired after 9/11 to forego the many other “options” before him. Applying to become a Marine lieutenant, he explained, “I wish to put my money where my mouth is by having the honor to serve.”
It is a mercy to us that it requires so few to keep us so safe. But more than expressing our tender thanks, or giving up airline seats or a moment before the ball game starts, we civilians might try a little harder to understand not just the soldier’s sorrows but his joys and the satisfaction of a dangerous duty honorably discharged.