In the historic struggles to extend and guarantee civil rights for African-Americans, women, workers, gays and lesbians, those with disabilities, and immigrants, American liberals have provided truly indispensable public and political leadership. Because of their efforts, the United States is today a fairer, better and more humane place.
But along the way, when almost every disagreement turns into each side asserting and insisting upon its rights, the national debate has sadly become impoverished. When was the last time you heard a national leader talk about the responsibilities each of us has as an American citizen? Perhaps your memory is better than mine.
We live today in an increasingly stratified country, where young Americans can go all the way through school without meeting or knowing anyone from outside their own social and economic classes. Americans are disconnected from each other and nowhere is this disconnect more alarming and more obvious than between those in the U.S. military and their civilian contemporaries. In spite of all the “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers on SUVs and the unvarying mantra of how “proud” all our public officials, irrespective of party, are of “our brave men and women in uniform,” the American upper class is happy to have all fighting and, yes, all dying done not by its own, precious children but instead by the sons and daughters of waitresses, secretaries and firefighters.
Back when Ronald Reagan was a presidential candidate, 412 members of the House and Senate — 77 percent of Congress — had worn their nation’s uniform in military service. Today, just 108 out of 535, barely 20 percent, have served. Interestingly, the two female House members in that group are both combat veterans.
Lyndon Johnson was the last president to have a son — or in his case, two sons-in-law — serve, both in wartime. Franklin Roosevelt had four sons. All went to war. Elliott Roosevelt enlisted in the Army Air Corps and flew 300 combat missions. Jimmy Roosevelt joined the Marine Corps, and in combat in the Pacific, earned both the Navy Cross and the Silver Star. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Franklin Roosevelt Jr.’s bravery saving the lives of crew members when under heavy enemy fire was rewarded with a Silver Star. And Navy Lt. John Roosevelt earned a Bronze Star during World War II.
It’s not just about who is in today’s all-volunteer military but also about who is not. The last major star to serve from the entertainment world was Army draftee Elvis Presley. Because the country’s political leadership failed to draft upper class youth during the Vietnam War, the draft lost its legitimacy.
Here is the challenge to my fellow liberals. Let us lead by reminding our fellow Americans and ourselves that our citizenship, while priceless, is not free. We have responsibilities, beyond paying the taxes we owe, to each other and to our country. Universal national service and two years of training and service with no exemptions for every young American could be the liberals’ summons to collective sacrifice for the common good.
With a son or daughter in uniform, foreign policy — along with serious questioning of any future president’s rush to war — would become the central concern of every family. Beyond military service, other important national tasks include cleaning up our country, bringing hope to children at risk and help to the helpless, and providing company to the lonely. We’re winning the fight for citizens’ rights. Now it’s time to lead the fight for citizen responsibility.