By DeWayne Wickham
Near the end of his University of Notre Dame commencement address, President Obama urged graduates to make public service a way of life.
“Because when you serve, it doesn’t just improve your community,” he said, “it makes you a part of your community.”
A few hours later on 60 Minutes, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, — who aptly calls himself the Secretary of War — talked about the public service being performed by members of the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration is shifting troops from Iraq, where fighting is winding down, to Afghanistan, where the war is heating up. This summer the number of U.S. troops in that combat-ravaged country will nearly double to 59,000. The number of U.S. dead and wounded also will likely swell.
In a democracy, military duty is the ultimate act of public service. But while America has been waging war on two fronts since 2003, many Americans have left the defense of their way of life to the small group of people who make up this nation’s all-volunteer military. These men and women deserve more than just our gratitude.
Nearly 5,000 of them have given their lives in defense of this country — a sacrifice Abraham Lincoln called a soldier’s “last full measure of devotion.” More than 30,000 have suffered physical wounds. Many more have been injured psychologically by multiple war-zone deployments, the Rand Corporation reported last year in a study titled, “Invisible Wounds of War.”
Those who volunteered for military service during this time of war deserve to be treated like patriots, not mercenaries. We shouldn’t have to repeatedly deploy them to war zones while millions of young men and women do nothing that could remotely pass for public service.
When America goes to war, Americans — all of us — should be on a war footing.
But with a U.S. military force likely to remain in Iraq for many years and the fighting in Afghanistan about to become more lethal, most Americans treat our involvement in these conflicts like a spectator sport — the view for them is just fine from the bleachers. And as this passive public watches, the military is forced to keep thousands of servicemen and women on active duty beyond the end of their enlistment contracts.
In March, Gates announced a phase-out of this so-called “stop-loss” program, which as of January had 13,200 soldiers trapped in a military no-man’s land. But the finish line won’t be reached until March 2011.
The young men and women who are the backbone of this nation’s armed forces are the most selfless — and the most deserving — Americans. They have put their lives on hold, their marriages at risk and their trust in a country that too often treats them as an afterthought — except on Memorial Day, of course, when millions of Americans storm the beaches as many military families are making their way to the cemeteries.
Any war worth fighting is one in which a broad cross-section of Americans should bear the brunt of combat. Ideally the ranks of the U.S. military should be filled with volunteers. But, if necessary, this nation should resort to a military draft to spread the burden of war more fairly across the length and breadth of this nation.
In creating the first Memorial Day in 1868, Gen. John Logan said, “Let no neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
Nor should we forget in a time of war the defense of freedom should be the duty of the many, not the few.