In a speech last week at Duke University, Defense Secretary Robert Gates talked about the strengths and challenges of the all-volunteer military, which he said had performed so admirably in what has become the longest sustained combat in American history.
No major war in our history, he said, has been fought with a smaller percentage of the country's citizens in uniform — less than 1 percent. The consequences of having so few fighting for so long have been significant, he said, in lives and dollars.
And he said this:
"It is also true that whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction, a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally.
"… For a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do."
Indeed, Mr. Gates said, fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or their social circle, and that is particularly true in certain areas of the country, such as the Northeast, where family military traditions and college ROTC programs are more scarce.
Mr. Gates — and just about everyone in military leadership agrees with him — was not advocating for a return of the draft. Not only is a draft "politically impossible," Mr. Gates said, but it is impractical given the kinds of technical skills, experiences and personal attributes that are needed in today's military.
Instead, the secretary of defense was making a pitch for the best and the brightest, like the Duke students to whom he was speaking, to join up, to do what so many men did in previous generations by making military service not something to be avoided but something that was part of their life plan.
And he quoted John Adams, who said in a letter to his son, "Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. If wise men decline it, others will not. If honest men refuse it, others will not."
But Mr. Gates also spoke about those of us who, as John Milton wrote, "also serve who only stand and wait." He is right when he says there may be no one in our workplace, our neighborhood or our church who has a loved one in the military and who understands the strange mix of pride and dread with which we live and which robs our sleep of peace.
My husband, I think, would agree with Mr. Gates when he says that military service is often a function of geography. He has wondered aloud if our son might be a Penn State engineering grad if we lived in any other place but Annapolis, neighbors to the U.S. Naval Academy.
I am not without a military community of my own. Relationships are a woman thing, and I am linked to the mothers of my son's classmates and to many of the guys themselves. But that does not diminish my worry. It compounds it.
And that worry is what isolates each of us who has someone we love in the military, leaving us alone in a dark place with our worst fears.
Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.