Though the anti-military left has thrown around the term “chickenhawk” in an attempt to damage the political careers of many Vietnam-era politicians who did not serve in the military, it has never had traction outside of the fever swamp, and even within that narrow slice of American politics, the charge marks the user as one of the nutters, given that the premise of the American republic is civilian control of the military, and especially as veterans rarely --and active duty men and women never-- make that charge, understanding it to be both typically duplicitous in that it is offered by many who do not esteem the military, and deeply at odds with the basic structure of the country. Responsible Americans generally honor and admire military service, and value it in candidates, but the lack of military service has never disqualified a candidate, not even one who went very far out of his way to avoid the Vietnam era draft, as Bill Clinton did.
Even given that history, I argued somewhat off-the-cuff to the Biola audience, it seemed to me that this was a different time than the Vietnam era, and certainly very different from the long years of peace that followed the abandonment of Saigon to the communists and Cambodia to the genocidal Pol Pot.
My guess, I told them, was that in the not so distant future senior elected offices --in the Congress, statehouses, and certainly the presidency-- would be very difficult to obtain for the young men of today who did not volunteered to come to the defense of their country after it had been attacked on 9/11.
Not impossible, but very difficult. Very, very difficult.
This came as a genuine surprise to many in the audience, and provoked quite a lot of argument. I explained that the failure to serve would not be a bar to a successful life in many other fields, but that politics was unique in that it requires the consent of voters, and voters generally look for leadership. I don’t think it is a stretch to conclude that young men who declined the opportunity to serve in uniform during this war will find themselves being asked “Why didn’t you come to the defense of your country after it was attacked?” I asked the young men who were objecting to my proposition to consider the answers they would be giving in a few years.
“Different gifts,” or “not my calling” were a couple of the –very—tentative responses, but of course those are not responsive to the idea that indeed the military service is a sacrifice of self to country, and that the question would not be satisfactorily replied to by reference to personal inconvenience.
“I want to serve a different way,” was a better response, but the specifics of that service would matter a great deal –intelligence gathering or law enforcement are not inconsistent with military service, for example.
“It is a volunteer army,” is another non-responsive dodge: Of course it is. The question is why didn’t you volunteer?
“I wouldn’t be any good at it,” was my favorite. The answer is of course that the military could be the judge of that if you give them the opportunity to conduct an assessment.
Physical infirmity would be a sufficient answer if the disability was serious enough, but family circumstances, probably not in most instances. As David McCullough recounts in his biography of Harry Truman, Truman had served in the Missouri National Guard and had been discharged, his father had died and he was the key to the operation of his family’s large and difficult to operate farm on which his mother and sister depended. He was also engaged.
But when America went to war in 1917, Truman immediately signed up and was off to Europe.
It was what you did then, and again in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. You served. And had Truman, JFK or Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan or Bush not done so, it is impossible to imagine them rising as they did. Only when the “war” in question became discredited did the value attached to service in it diminish, and then not entirely, and not at all for some.
“Wasn’t this war like Vietnam,” was another objection that came from the audience. Though some on the left might see it as such, 9/11 makes that a very hard case to make, and even the political controversy around Iraq cannot diminish the fact that the enemy is real and relentless.
The conversation carried on for some time and included all of the panel participants and many of the other older participants in the conference. It continued even afterwards at a reception. It had disturbed many of the young men. I have had similar conversations since with many other young men (and I do think it will be an issue only for young men –the subject of another column.) It is usually disturbing to them too, unless they have already felt the call of duty and acted upon it or resolved to do so at the conclusion of college.
The reason it discomforts so many is that it is a conversation about duty, and also a conversation about courage. The former idea is alien to a lot of young Americans, and no one enjoys even an implied rebuke to their own courage.
Yesterday I received an e-mail from one of the young men in that Biola audience. He is off to a very fine graduate school of business –and into the Naval Reserve as an officer candidate. He told me that good arguments have consequences, and that the discussion that night had changed his life’s course.
My suspicion is that the debate that night would only have such an effect on students who had had professors like John Mark Reynolds, who quite regularly encourages his students to consider military service, and who have thought long and hard on what an attack on your country means, and on the ideas of duty and the virtue of courage.
I hope others will raise this issue with men under the age of 25, especially those who might not see themselves in a uniform.
I raised the idea of the duty of military service in a time of war in an on-air conversation with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College this week (you can listen to our conversation which began with a review of what to look for in a college), and he immediately reminded me of Lt. Tom Cotton, who was completing his education and was busy building his legal career as grads of Harvard Law like to do when America was attacked. Lt. Cotton enlisted, but only after receiving the assurance that he would be a combat officer, not a lawyer with a rank. He is serving still, and is a fine example of what America will be admiring and honoring over the next few decades, especially as it chooses its leaders, especially if –as seems certain—this present war continues for a generation.
I suspect it will be the Tom Cottons who dominate the politics of the middle of this century if the country survives with its present institutions in tact (another column), and with good cause. They will be asking for the votes of men and women they have previously served in more perilous times and from far more perilous locations than Washington, D.C.
And I suspect that will matter. A lot.