It wasn't until three years and two months after it began that I finally met someone whose son was a casualty of George Bush's war in Iraq. I didn't come by this information on the job. This was not someone I met on assignment at a funeral, or at a military hospital. The man who reported his son's wounding lives in Virginia; he's a Vietnam veteran. He happened to be someone I've known for a few years through shared interest in a certain youth sport. His son, platoon leader of an engineers unit, was wounded in Iraq in the spring of 2006. A homemade bomb blew up under his vehicle; two of his men were killed.
I marked this as a personal first -- since the war started in March 2003, someone I know, even in a limited way, had been touched by the violence of the Iraq war.
No surprise that the war took so long to reach me, and even then in a real stretch.
Most Americans have experienced this war vicariously, through several degrees of separation, if at all. Like vast numbers of comfortable, middle-class people, I have no friends or relatives serving in the military. The strapping young men in my extended family work in various white- and blue-collar fields. They enjoy scuba diving, skiing, playing the guitar, going to concerts and NFL games. They take vacations to the islands with their young wives or girlfriends. A nephew considered joining the Navy after high school a few years ago but changed his mind.
The young women in my family are on career tracks, and none, as far as I can tell, will lead to a military installation.
In this regard, my life has been no different from that of millions of Americans for whom the war is not only geographically distant but spiritually and emotionally abstract. We've become intellectually detached, letting the war and all of its collateral controversies slide by on the evening news. For most of the last five years, more Americans seemed to care more about the outcome of American Idol than about the outcome of this war.
"The main reason that the war remains so remote from the lives of middle-class Americans is the absence of a military draft," wrote Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, in an online essay three years ago. "This is a subject that no one seems to want to talk about. Supporters of the war definitely do not want to talk about it. President Bush and Vice President Cheney react angrily to any suggestion that a draft might be needed, because they know that the prospect of conscription would make their decision to invade Iraq even more unpopular. Having lived through Vietnam and shirked the draft themselves, they understand that if people anywhere near their own station in life were forced to fight, any remaining support for wars of arguable necessity would dry up and blow away."
Military commanders say they prefer the all-volunteer military. They get a more motivated, patriotic, professional grade of soldier that way and reduce the social and cultural problems associated with conscription. But no one I know, with the necessity for multiple tours in Iraq among the enlisted and reserve military, trusts that the United States has the manpower necessary to carry out and maintain the kind of missions we undertake. No one I know is rushing off to enlist, either.
Numbers are just one part of this. There are larger problems for the nation -- the inequity of a system that does not demand equal sacrifice from all Americans for a war, or wars, that might last years, and the diminished vigilance of a people who are not invested in the decisions or the outcomes. A draft would wake everyone up. A draft would have ended George Bush's war several thousand casualties ago, or it would have prevented the invasion altogether.
"The real `two Americas,'" wrote Weisberg in Slate, "are not rich versus poor or religious versus secular but military versus civilian. ... Once again, young people without good opportunities in life are handling the fighting and dying for those with better things to do - only this time, there is not even a pretense of shared responsibility for defending the country. Such injustice is hard to face up to in a country where social equality remains the civic religion."
I have suggested this before, and suggest it again in today's column --- a draft to two-year public service for all Americans once they reach the age of 18, with deferment optional until the age of 21, when service becomes mandatory.
There should be three paths: the armed forces, AmeriCorps-style domestic service, and a revitalized and expanded Peace Corps. Barack Obama is proposing at least two of those. The federal government would stage a daily national drawing to decide what path each citizen takes. Those assigned to the military would have a choice in branch, and they would receive pay and benefits comparable to what is offered today.
Those who go into AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps would receive limited pay and living expenses, but would get grants for higher education and special financing for the purchase of their first homes.
Because a young American's public service path would be decided by lottery, anyone can end up doing anything anywhere - Andre from West Baltimore might end up building a library in Guatemala, Meredith from Brooklandville could end up working in a homeless shelter in Baltimore, and Brad from Cockeysville might end up with an armored unit in Afghanistan.
Across these varied lines of public service, a new generation of Americans will become bonded in the cause of a better community, better state, better nation, better world. And we might close the cultural divide between those who do the giving (and the dying) and the rest of us.