Of the 535 members of Congress, only one has a child or grandchild in the armed services. That lone exception being Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota.
The lack of military service amongst our leader's children indicates the appalling level of insulation between the upper-middle-class elite and the military that has formed in the all-volunteer age.
It's also not that surprising. The well-to-do are trained from a young age to perpetuate their family name and income. Military service, with its long dreadful tenure, anonymity, low pay and peril is, therefore, regarded as a waste of time and left to the poor who are not conditioned to the same sense of entitlement.
I have a friend at the Veteran's Administration who just shook his head ruefully when he heard how few of our elected leaders have children in the armed services. He recalled that John F. Kennedy, for all his flaws, schemed, connived and falsified his medical condition to get into the U.S. Navy during World War II and promptly volunteered for hazardous combat duty on torpedo boats.
"Where's that example?" my friend lamented.
Apparently, it's gone.
"The sad thing," he continued, is that "nothing a young person will do in the three to five years after college is as worthwhile a learning experience and leadership challenge as serving as a junior officer in the military in whatever capacity. ."
In fact, he recently urged my godson, who also works at the VA, to join the reserves.
"What might that mean?" I asked.
"He might have to go to war," my friend responded flatly. My eyes filled with tears.
To my friend, military service provides a foundation of discipline and leadership that is very much a prerequisite for the ambitious young. There is precedence for this line of thought. The leaders of most great empires were drawn from the military, if only because the survival of their political regimes was much more precarious, making military credibility a prerequisite for political leadership. Military symbolism could also be a useful tool for legitimizing their rule. Alexander the Great, for example, made sure that public depictions of him suggested the popular myth of Hercules. Julius Caesar issued coins that depicted him as the essence of heroic military striving. The illiterate populace could not read the inscription, but they understood the image.
Many modern American leaders have proved equally adept at exploiting their military backgrounds for political gain. From George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant to Dwight D. Eisenhower to Harry Truman, nearly every major American war has produced a hero who quickly ascended to the presidency. Historian T. Harry Williams observes that the "Ike Type" has proved particularly popular among the American people, who tend to elect as president only those generals who exemplify the democratic ideal. This rousing point was not lost on Teddy Roosevelt, FDR or JFK - who mythologized themselves as masculine defenders of democracy by exaggerating images of their prowess as hunters, fighters and soldiers.
Spurred by two world wars, the same qualities have appealed to voters for much of the past half-century. Between 1945 and 1992, every president has served in the armed forces. The lone exception was President Clinton, who actively evaded the draft, raising serious character issues.
Clinton was the first baby boomer president and I think his unwillingness to pay any price or take any responsibility for his military evasions mirrors the views of much of America's elite, who consider the military as somehow not worth their time. As America's ambitious young continue to insulate themselves from service, the military will become more inbred, drawing its personnel from the same economic classes generation after generation. That, in turn, will lead to greater estrangement between civilian policymakers and military personnel.
Never in the history of any empire has the divide between the civilian and the military life and the rich and poor been so great. This won't lead to a coup, but I worry that it will lead to misunderstanding on both sides, thus increasing the military's tendency to insulate itself from civilian "meddling," thereby scuttling political-military balance essential to effective policymaking.
I am, however, curious as to whether you think this is problematic. Does it disturb you that so few of our wealthy citizens pursue military service? Could the class divide strain political-military relations to the point that it effectively divides our highest policy circles into rival clans? Might this, in turn, threaten our government's ability to ensure our security? Please e-mail me with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will chose certain responses to include in a follow-up column.