When the son of John McCain announced he was joining the Marines a few months ago, it made headlines across the country — not only because his father was famous, but also because his decision was so unusual.
Few sons of senators serve in the military these days, nor — with few exceptions — do the sons of congressmen or presidents or governors, or New York Times editors. They're too busy doing what they consider more important things—like attending Yale, or running their father's company. And yet, these are often the very same people who one day are going to lead our country. This situation is not only inherently unfair, but also deeply dangerous.
Kathy Roth - Douquet and Frank Schaeffer are the authors of AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service — and How It Hurts Our Country. They argue in the book that from our country's founding onward, serving one's country in the military has always been expected — especially among the scions of the upper class, what a previous generation called noblesse oblige. As evidence, the authors point to the fact that, as recently as the 1950s, half the graduating classes of Princeton and Harvard — the sons of bankers and businessmen — signed up for a tour of duty, as I myself did after graduating from Brown. Today, fewer than one percent do. Overwhelmingly, those who serve today are from the middle and working class, rural and small town.
Why is this dangerous? Well, the authors write, wealthy elites who avoid military service will someday be running America — and their ignorance about what our military endures or is capable of may cause them to misuse our troops. Studies show that they tend to look down on those who do serve, and they put too small a value on their willingness to serve, why they serve, and on what this service gives in return.
Frank Schaeffer, the son of the late Francis Schaeffer, admits that when his own son announced his plans to become a Marine, he was horrified — and embarrassed. After all, most of his friends' kids were planning to attend elite colleges. But then he met some of the men his son served with.
As Schaeffer writes, "I started to understand that it was degrading to have to justify John's being a Marine to people who struck me as snobs — in other words, to people like me, people who never lifted a finger for anybody. It began to occur to me," Schaeffer concludes, "that maybe something was wrong with me and not with [my son] John."
Ditto, writes Roth-Douquet. When she — a Princeton grad and former Clinton appointee — told friends she was planning to marry a Marine officer, they were shocked. But then, September 11 happened. As Doth - Douquet puts it, "Friends who previously hinted that [my husband] should probably find responsible work in the civilian world were now suddenly glad to have him in the Marine Corps."
Schaeffer and Roth-Douquet are right: It's wrong for an entire class of Americans to consider themselves exempt from serving their country — and then to expect to lead it. Tomorrow — Veterans Day — we ought to reflect not only on the sacrifices made by earlier generations of veterans, but also on how we can spread out the sacrifice more fairly among all classes of Americans.
America's most privileged youth should remember something their ancestors well understood: To whom much is given, much is expected — and that applies to serving their country.