I have the honor of being a member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, otherwise known as “The River Rats.” Originally started by veterans of the air war over North Vietnam, it has since been opened to all military aviators. It exists largely to honor those Missing in Action in the Vietnam War, but it performs many charitable functions to benefit veterans and their families. You can read about the River Rats here. The Rats have a discussion group which I subscribe to and it’s very interesting to hear these gentlemen reminisce about their experiences and exchange opinions on different topics. The conversation is often lively and every once in a while, it is truly memorable. On today’s discussion, a gentleman who a Navy veteran made some observations about the all-volunteer military force which gave me pause. I’m sharing them here because they are, in my mind, very profound and I think they need to be “out there.”
To set the stage, this gentleman was reflecting on a discussion about an impromptu “flash mob” which formed at Reagan Airport to cheer a planeload of World War II veterans who were exiting their plane enroute to a ceremony on The Mall. When a group of veterans travel together on a plane to attend an event like this, it’s called an “Honor Flight.”
Now here are the gentleman’s words:
When we intentionally make – post-Vietnam, no conscription, for reasons we all know very well – military service entirely voluntary, we obtain two long-term results:
a. A VERY professional and proficient military, far better than we have ever had in the past;
b. A citizenry that generally and deeply believes they have the RIGHT to pursue their individual goals – many selfish and avaricious – with no thought of the nation’s defense.
Technology, capital, unit/service/joint cohesion, intense training, and great people (at all levels) have allowed “a” to work reasonably well. However, “b” is creating a society in which large segments – especially among the better educated – rarely even think about the sacrifices required to sustain this nation; when they do, they fundamentally believe it is not their concern.
Consider, for a moment, the current officer and senior-NCO/Petty Officer “corps” (let us just say E-6 and above) in all the services. Without question, they are excellent; however, we far-disproportionately see the sons and daughters of the professional military, kids from areas (urban and rural) that perpetually experience difficult economic times, and those (frequently, immigrants and minorities) who are attempting to achieve a “foothold” (education, skills, minimal financial security, respect) in our society. What we do NOT regularly see are the children of middle/upper-middle class suburbia, educated at excellent high schools and colleges, and willing to make selfless scarifies for the common good, for our nation’s defense (after all, many of these youngsters already have “education, skills, minimal financial security, respect” as a near-birthright).
I do not believe that America can, over the course of several generations, prevail with a citizenry where only a distinct minority believes service is critical. The self-anointed elites:
a. Become increasingly disconnected from the majority of Americans;
b. They – and their children/grandchildren – develop attitudes of entitlement and of superiority (“let Manuel serve, I’m too valuable to do so, and – besides – it will interrupt my pursuit of wealth and privilege at Harvard”);
c. They will never understand that they are personally and individually responsible for America’s security and success.
What does all this have to do with the Honor Flight? I suggest, a LOT. Those who serve with honor – and, sometimes, with distinction – invariably understand that America requires “contributors” as well as “takers,” that by serving and sacrificing together, we develop an abiding respect for each other, and that wealth really is not crucial – the truly important things in life cannot be purchased. We need mandatory, national service now!
Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose popularized the term the “Greatest Generation.” With profound respect for my parents’ cohort, I suggest that the more-appropriate way to understand this phenomenon is that virtually all who serve honorably – regardless of when they do so – become “great” through their experiences and sacrifices, but that during World War II we had an overwhelmingly large number who did so.