DALLAS -- During this presidential campaign, voters will hear much about the divergent economic realities between "the rich" and "the middle class." Yet there is another partition in America that is less visible but no less troubling: The great divide between the civilian and military communities leaves the nation and its electorate ill-equipped to make informed judgments about military and international affairs.
In San Diego recently, I toured the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and spent two days at sea with the officers and crew of the USS Nimitz. To say the least, it renewed my respect for the professionalism, competence, dedication and sacrifice of America's men and women in uniform.
A quick glance at the troops I met immediately revealed a broad representation of America's ethnic groups. Statistics show high standards of educational attainment in the armed forces. Many come from families in which military service is a common experience. Yet I can't help concluding that the "elite" social classes seem to be conspicuously absent.
The civilian leaders with whom I traveled to the ship were clearly surprised by their exposure to young Americans who were seriously and stoically preparing to deploy to a war from which some might not return. Concepts of duty, honor and sacrifice were simply not central to the life experiences of these civilians. America's elites don't necessarily lack patriotism, but precious few of these leaders have engaged in military service themselves. They simply lack reasonable reference points.
In the middle of the 20th century, military service was near-universal for American men. While some used their privileged status to escape arduous or risky duty, society as a whole came together in the common cause of national defense. As a result, America was full of veterans who could place "news from the front" in context for friends and neighbors.
A society with veterans represented at all levels of the community is better equipped to interpret accounts of inadvertent civilian casualties, interrogation interpreted as torture, or prisoner abuse. With the abdication of the upper classes from military service, most elites in the media, private sector and government service don't have the intimate human context for the realities of war.
The debate about U.S. engagement in Iraq is, at its core, an estimate of whether America is winning - or indeed can win, given the circumstances. No electorate can make informed decisions about the exercise of military power in a far-off theater if it lacks collective experience with military matters. And any society that restricts its information and analysis to the sound bites of "embedded" journalists and political pundits will find itself highly susceptible to the manipulations of partisan politicians and interest groups at either extreme of any debate.
America must find a way to re-engage the nation's elites with the satisfactions and sacrifices of military and national service. Leading colleges should reinstate ROTC programs. Corporations should emphasize post-military recruiting. Likewise, professional organizations such as bar associations and business trade groups must seek opportunities to attend military expositions and demonstrations.
America must overhaul its school history curricula to engage students in military culture. And it must equip them to effectively and skeptically evaluate future military and political issues in the context of past experience.
Only with an experienced and knowledgeable citizenry can we as a nation achieve U.S. policy goals while avoiding the pitfalls of failure and their attendant human, financial and diplomatic costs.
Peter A. Gudmundsson is a former U.S. Marine field artillery officer. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.