David Segal: Guest Opinion
July 3, 2012
This past Memorial Day, one of my Facebook friends shared an editorial cartoon. It depicted a military cemetery with rows of tombstones bearing inscriptions that alternated “Conservative American,” “Liberal American,” “Conservative American,” “Liberal American” and so on. It was a poignant reminder that when we honor our military dead, we honor them all – regardless of their race, religion, political persuasion, gender or sexual orientation – for the sacrifices they made for our common future.
It was also a reminder that freedom isn’t free, as the saying goes, and our fallen heroes paid the price to safeguard our liberty. As we celebrate our independence today, we should recall soberly how few of us have sacrificed so much, and how many of us have sacrificed so little, to defend an American way of life that most of us have the luxury of taking for granted.
Easier said than done. How does a nation instill commitment, responsibility and gratitude?
At times I wonder whether the U.S. should reinstate the draft. Perhaps those of us who don’t serve have forgotten or haven’t learned what it means to place the nation’s interests above our own. Mandatory military service also might reinvigorate and elevate our political life. If everyone had to register for a draft, it would be harder for people to ignore when we’re at war, as we have been for more than 10 years. Voter turnout might increase. Congresspeople would have their own children’s lives to consider when debating the authorization of war. The quality of our civil discourse might even increase: If your political opponent had fought alongside you in combat or held your life in his hands, you might treat him in a debate with a reverence and respect that are missing from today’s public square.
But a draft entails significant disadvantages as well. The sheer expense of universal conscription would surely draw the ire of tax-averse conservatives and war-averse liberals (although, come to think of it, if the left and the right equally dislike an idea, then maybe there’s something to it).
More heartbreakingly, the dire psychological consequences of war intensify faster than the government can treat them. A Pentagon report last month counted 154 active-duty-troop suicides in the first five months of 2012 – almost one a day – which exceeded the number of combat deaths in the same period.
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I mention this stunning statistic not to criticize the Pentagon but rather to call out the congressmen and citizens who hide behind the banner of “Support our Troops” while refusing to consider necessary funding for counseling, post-traumatic stress disorder therapy and other potentially lifesaving measures for our returning and recovering heroes. Gratitude for selfless service demands no less.
Perhaps the institution of a national-service requirement offers a more reasonable alternative to a draft. Imagine if every high school, college or grad-school graduate dedicated a year or two to volunteering in civilian or military service. It might help cultivate a population with a stake in the nation’s upbuilding and with relationships across the lines of race, class, faith and politics that too often divide us.
No doubt it would be expensive and complicated. But how can we afford not to inspire a new generation toward common cause with their fellow Americans from every background and walk of life? Partisan mouthpieces derail our political process with rancorous name-calling rather than engaging in the tough, incremental work of political compromise for the sake of the common good. Religious demagogues define their faith by what they hate rather than the better world they envision. Opponents are cast as enemies; those who disagree have their patriotism called into question. Civil public discourse is a rare commodity today.
Another way to honor the proud legacy of the many diverse American heroes who risk their lives and safety for our common freedom is to remember that we, too, are supposed to be more loyal to the collective enterprise of forging and protecting America than to advancing partisan agendas.
Is it too much to ask that we pause during our July 4 festivities to remember those who sacrifice for our freedom and to affirm our common commitment to this nation’s security and future? Can we commit to work harder, volunteer more, complain less and avoid the smug sense of entitlement that is the byproduct of longstanding freedom and prosperity? Can we reclaim the virtues of sacrifice and humility as cornerstones of our national identity?
Only then can we begin to show our genuine gratitude for the momentous gift of life in America that we enjoy and celebrate today.