A guest at a cocktail party in Cleveland Park, the fashionable Washington neighborhood of middle-class liberals ("progressives," they want to be called this year), tells about two young men of her acquaintance who happily traded military service for a college education.
One young friend is a new graduate of Duke (more than $30,000 annual tuition) and is about to depart for Afghanistan; the other has just returned from his tour of duty in Iraq. Both owe their education to the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, the once reviled "ROTC."
The guest's story sparks a lively conversation. "They didn't do it for the perks," the first guest says. "They just wanted to serve their country." A second guest nods in agreement. "People like us depend on young men like that," she says.
"Yes," says a skeptical third guest, "but I'd rather find the money to send my son to college, as expensive as that is. The Army is not for him."
Attitudes, once frozen in concrete, do change. But only in degree. These are not the bitter years of the 1970s, when hostility to the Vietnam War fueled hostility to ROTC and everything military. Such attitudes were the price of admission to Cleveland Park cocktail parties. Now, even "progressives" understand that Afghanistan may be a rotten place for a war, but that's where the war on terror is, even if President Obama, with his celebrated gift of language, insists that we call it an "overseas contingency operation."
But despite lip service appreciation for the military, many Americans show little deeply felt respect for the men and women who volunteer to put themselves in harm's way to defend the rest of us. We applaud the three Navy SEALs who took out the pirates holding an American hostage, but who can name a hero or a heroic battle in the godforsaken mountains of Afghanistan? When they come home and wear their uniform on the streets, they're pretty much ignored.
During World War II, soldiers were invited into the homes of strangers for Sunday dinner; the choicest cuts of chicken and roast beef were put on the plates of the men in uniform. Civilians picked up the checks of soldiers and sailors on their way out of a restaurant. Hollywood went enthusiastically to war, with dozens of volunteer stars dispatched to remote battlefields.