To the Editor:
Next Monday, Wilton veterans will once again step off to lead the Memorial Day parade with great pride and camaraderie. In doing so, they preserve the legacy of courageous, selfless service that they share with the many American veterans who have gone before them. Most of this year’s marchers are in their mid-60s and others much older. All together, there are fewer of them every year. It is vitally important that they be regarded not as senior citizens in faded uniforms, but as a visible symbol of America’s armed forces at large and its vital connection to our society.
Though much has changed in the conduct of armed conflict since the early 20th century, there are clear continuities in the nature of war and especially in the character, commitment, and ethos of those who have served in our Armed Forces. At the close of World War II nearly 10 percent of the entire US population was on military active duty, which meant most able-bodied men under a certain age and a number of pioneering women in important support functions. Through the decades after World War II, when so many American families had at least one member in uniform, political and journalistic references were supportive and admiring. Most Americans were familiar enough with the military to respect it while being keenly aware of its shortcomings, but service in one branch or another for a few years was still considered to be a rite of passage for most young Americans…even Elvis Presley.
Today, the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public. America has been at war non-stop for the last 14 years, but the public has not. More young Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist to serve their country- almost 300,000 students overseas versus well under 200,000 new recruits. In Wilton alone, with the notable exception of Nicholas Madaras and a few of his contemporaries, over two generations have come of age since the last draftee was inducted and the number of volunteers taking the the oath of induction since then has been few and far between. The difference between earlier Americans who knew their military and the modern America that gazes admiringly at its heroes but doesn’t connect with them began to show up in popular media culture in the latter years of the Viet Nam war. In contrast to reporter Ernie Pyle who daily described the bravery and travail of the troops in World War II, until he was killed on a Pacific island, American media a generation later reveled in denouncing our military until the average grunt in Viet Nam felt little but despair. A war they had won by almost any measure was lost.
Deployed soldiers increasingly remark that America doesn’t care how they are doing. With a complacent public, having no direct interest in what is happening in the military economically, productively, and tactically, both strategic and institutional problems can fester, and they have. In 2012, historian Andrew Bacevich (who fought in Viet Nam and whose son died in Iraq) wrote, “ A people untouched, or seemingly untouched by war are far less likely to care about it. Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.” Today’s civilian leadership has scant military experience and even less courage to use it properly. Fewer and fewer citizens believe that our political “leaders” are upholding their constitutional duty to protect the people of the United States, and yet we have allowed them to defund and demoralize the military without complaint.
People in the military can feel both above and below the messy civilian reality of America. They feel below due to the unequal burdens placed on them and the inattention to their lives, limbs, and opportunities they have lost. (The ongoing disaster that is the Veterans Administration is evidence of that) They feel above in being able to withstand hardships that would break their contemporaries. The latter is very much the warrior ethos—a bond between the members of the military comprised of values such as honor, duty, courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. But warrior ethos also depends on the connection of the military to society, because servicemen and women need to see themselves as part of a community that sustains itself through “sacred trust” and a covenant that binds the military to one another and to the society they serve.
It is most interesting that in the past two decades, respect for our courts, our schools, the press, Congress, big business, Wall Street, and many other institutions in modern life has plummeted. The exception has been the military. Confidence in the military shot up after 9/11 and has stayed high. Three-quarters of the public express a “great deal” of confidence in the military versus one third with confidence in the nation’s medical system and a paltry 7% in Congress. Given that, one would think that more young Americans would show some interest in a short tour in the Armed Forces. Those who have fallen for the politician’s siren song of a” free” college education would do well to earn it with a stint in the military. Not only does it enhance one’s commercial value later in civilian life but the satisfaction of having risen above self and meeting the challenge is something a veteran never regrets.
We are today fighting enemies who use a perverted interpretation of religion to incite hatred and violence. What we see in the greater Middle East and, spreading increasingly to Western European countries is a catastrophe of colossal scale. The naiveté of the current administration in Washington has laid the groundwork for future conflicts of a size and scope that few can contemplate. Ultimately, it will fall on the shoulders of American servicemen and women to stop forces that threaten all of us. It is not unlikely that Wilton’s children and grandchildren, currently in school, will eventually be called upon and will likely bear the brunt. That is why it is so important that our military preserve its warrior ethos while becoming much more connected to the American public, in whose name they fight.
Please follow the parade and continue on to Hillside Cemetery in respect for those who have fallen on our behalf. Memorial Day hot dogs and club openings can wait for a while.
Michael E. Graupner