In a recent speech at Lincoln University 34-year Congressional veteran and long-time military champion Ike Skelton, D-MO, expressed a concern that as 9/11 fades in the American consciousness, “It could come to pass that the American military could become isolated from American society and that Americans in their thoughts may fail to consider our men and women in uniform.”
Could he be right? There is no question that society evolves. We name generations to try to track such changes, such as the “greatest generation” who were children during the Great Depression, who fought WWII and longed for their children’s lives to be better than theirs. Their hopes came true, but not exactly in ways they imagined.
From the Revolutionary war to the present war on terror our military has always been a part of our cultural fabric. It has has evolved with and been reflective of our culture, but because of the wise Constitutional provision for civilian control it has been confined to an ethos of service separate from political partisanship. Originally it was made up of citizen volunteer soldiers, typified by the George Washington’s rag-tag army that deftly defeated the British. In the bloody Civil War it was American against American. Ultimately all those who fought over the years have had this in common, that they fought for the principles of their unit, community, family, and nation. It is a principled calling.
Patriotic support for our military reached a nadir in the late 1970’s following the ill-advised and unpopular Vietnam war. An all-volunteer military was formed after the end
of the draft and in my opinion it has been an unqualified success. The people who serve are volunteers who come from a pool of our best physically and mentally qualified young people. These in turn pass a fiercely competitive process through the up-or-out policy that has been in effect since WWII. The result is a highly effective professional force.
Since WWII and the Cold War, the military has become accustomed to family separation. In WWII people could be gone “for the duration”. In the Cold War, deployments ranged from 6 months to a year. Now, a year has become “normal”. I can tell you from personal experience that such absence can be excruciating.
It is a core principle in our military that we leave no one behind. We will make any effort no matter how long it takes to ensure that. It is essential to unit cohesion. This is the principle that was so effectively imbued in Medal of Honor awardee Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta that, when his unit was ambushed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in an incredible barrage of automatic weapons and rocket fire, he instinctively and automatically charged ahead to return fire and rescue his fallen comrade. No one gets left behind. He didn’t have to think about it. It’s a precept.
So, is it true that Rep. Skelton’s fears could be realized? Military families band together in mutual support during the long separations. They are like extended families, so there is some danger that they may feel tribally separate. Counting about 800,000 Reservists, the 2.27 million men and women in uniform are only 7 tenths of 1% of the population. Only they know the real pain of those separations, but they also know the great joy of reunion and the satisfaction that the effort is appreciated.
Public support has rebounded from the days of Vietnam, but it is no longer a shared experience, it is something observed by the rest. The potential for estrangement exists, especially in a climate of budget-cutting zeal. Will someone else take up Skelton’s banner, or will support slowly fade for those who risk and sacrifice for principle? For now, gratitude is evident, but the winds of change are blowing, the world is changing and so is the nature of war. Will the nation continue to reciprocate its military’s commitment, or leave them slowly behind? It depends on our nation’s leaders and, ultimately, on us, the Americans.