Friday, November 11, 2005

In Praise of Service

Veterans' Day, unlike Memorial Day, is not essentially a celebration of those who have died or been injured in war, or even of war itself: it's a commemoration of everyone who has "worn the uniform" and served his or her country. And in effect, it's a memorial service for those days when most male Americans, at least, did indeed "wear the uniform," even if they never fired a shot in anger or risked their lives.

Like most baby boomers who went to college, I never wore the uniform, though I did come very close. At the end of law school, I decided to go into the Air Force JAG Corps. I survived the document review, the background check, the physical. I even got through the final interview, when I was asked: "How do you feel about nuclear war?" My impulsive response was: "Do you mean as a victim, or as a perpetrator?" Fortunately, the officer interviewing me had a sense of humor, and I was offered a commission as a USAF captain.

As it happened, I deferred my commission for a year, because my girlfriend at the time, who was a year behind me in law school, wanted to go into the JAG Corps with me. In the interim, I stumbled into my first political job, and never looked back.

But I regret never having "worn the uniform," and I regret the fact that it's become a rarer experience for the generations that followed the baby boomers.

I've spent a considerable part of my professional life promoting the idea of universal access to national service: in the military, and in civilian occupations. I don't support a return to the draft, but do believe that every American, male or female, should be encouraged to give a year or two to their community and their country, in exchange for the blessings we enjoy as Americans.

My father, most of my uncles, and just about every man I know above the age of 60 did wear the uniform, often in supporting roles in wartime: as motor pool mechanics, as military police, as clerk-typists, as administrative staff. Virtually all of them say they benefitted from the experience of being intermingled with people from every part of the country, from every race and ethnic group, all their prejudices being burned off in the crucible of a common cause, and a common exposure to the ultimate sacrifice, even if they never went into combat.

We should all honor that service, and better yet, spend days like Veterans' Day pondering the value of univeral service and universal sacrifice, and considering ways to make national service once again a general experience for future generations.
-- Posted at 8:44 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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