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.
Much of that is gone from here to eternity, in the memorable phrase of James Jones' famous novel. We're much too sophisticated and hip to indulge heartfelt sentiment. More common is the casual contempt for veterans expressed by Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, in singling out returning soldiers as a threat to the peace and good order of the country. "Returning veterans," her department said in that infamous report issued in her name, "possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to right-wing extremists."
This sounded menacing until the fine print revealed no facts, no data, no research to back up the claim that unnamed "extremists" were out to enlist such veterans. The report emerged almost a year after, and FBI investigation found that only 19 veterans from the war on terrorism between 2001 and 2008 actually joined extremist movements. The police might find that many "vegans" and radical environmentalists are out to disturb the peace -- and in fact an animal rights activist has just made the FBI's "Most Wanted" terrorist list.
Unfortunately, the Homeland Security report reflects a pervasive mindset in the Obama administration, which imagines the suspicious nighttime creaks and noises in the wee hours are the sounds of right-wing extremists plotting mayhem. Napolitano's apology, so called, blames the veterans for "misunderstanding" her meaning, which seems clear enough to the rest of us. Seven U.S. senators wrote to her, asking for her evidence of a coup brewing in the barracks, so maybe she will clear up her meaning. I'm not betting on it.
The public was rightly outraged by the exposure of poor medical treatment for the broken and wounded veterans returning to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from what sure seems like war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The outrage should be extended to the remaining covens of disrespect of military service. The ban on ROTC on the elite campuses such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown and Stanford remains a shame of academe that some are attempting, however belatedly, to redress.
Representatives of both the military and the Ivy League schools meet occasionally to arrive at some kind of reconciliation. Diane Moore, a liberal, pacifist-leaning professor at Harvard, concedes that she misread the military when she was younger and clashed with her father, a World War II veteran. In her maturity, she realizes that her "privileges" were paid for by his "sacrifices."
Larry Summers, a prominent member of the Obama administration, recalled when he was briefly president of Harvard the burst of patriotism that followed 9-11, and hoped it would "reignite our respect for those who wear uniforms." Alas, we're still hoping.