A heavy burden, borne by the few
Detroit Free Press
When I was a little boy, I loved Memorial Day -- the parades, the flyovers, the rows of men in dress uniforms wielding rifles and swords with muscular delicacy.
Now, like the ever-growing majority of Americans with no kin in the military game, I get uncomfortable just thinking about men and women in uniform.
I persist in believing -- as I suspect even the most mushy-headed liberals of my generation tend to believe, in their hearts -- that there is something irreducibly honorable in serving one's country, even when the elected leaders you ultimately answer to seem not to know quite what they are doing.
In a career that has provided me with regular access to leaders of all kinds -- political, corporate, philanthropic, artistic -- I've been most consistently impressed with the quality of those who wore uniforms, discerning in them a seriousness of purpose and bedrock competence I find less common in other professions. As a Free Press colleague who has been briefed by top military brass on dozens of occasions observes, "I don't always agree with them, but you don't run into many three-star admirals who don't have a lot on the ball."
So why does this holiday, set aside to honor a group of men and women I tend to admire, make me so queasy?
For starters, I'm painfully conscious that the burden of military service is being borne by an ever-smaller minority of those Americans eligible for military service. Attempts to categorize these volunteers demographically -- to point out that they are more likely to be minorities, less likely to come from comfortable middle-class neighborhoods, less likely to have access to a college education -- are really beside the point.
What's inescapable is that more and more of us, wherever we live and whatever we do, have less and less direct contact with those who bear the burden of military service.
The sheer numbers tell me I am rubbing elbows with them -- the spouses, parents, children and siblings of those in harm's way -- every time I pump gas, or go to a dance recital, or stand in a grocery store checkout line. Occasionally, a flag at half-staff flaps accusingly along my morning commute; the gubernatorial orders bearing witness to some uniformed Michigander's death still issue regularly, although less than half of all flag fliers appear, in my experience, to pay consistent attention.
But mostly I am not required to confront the unfairness of it. When I worry aloud whether my son is studying hard enough, the parents in my mostly professional neighborhood nod sympathetically; if any of them has a beloved son or daughter on patrol in Kandahar, which I doubt, they are gracious enough not to say so.
The other problem, of course, is that I believe many of those soldiers confronting mortal danger today in Afghanistan are doing so senselessly, for ends our elected leaders can neither achieve nor articulate.
I can't be sure how I'd react if my own son or daughter were at risk of conscription for so pointless and Sisyphean a conflict, much less what I'd do if he or she were killed. But I suspect I'd be something like Cindy Sheehan, the mother who pitched camp outside then-President George W. Bush's ranch after her son was killed in Iraq -- incoherent with rage, impotent to console myself with bromides about honor and service.
And I know this: If Congress reinstituted a draft, and every American's son and daughter were at equal risk of being dispatched to Afghanistan, this Memorial Day would be even more uncomfortable for those prosecuting that misbegotten war than it is for me.
We would not indulge their recklessness with our own children, and no parent alive would believe that the economy was the nation's No. 1 issue.
Brian Dickerson is the Deputy Editorial Page Editor of the Free Press.