This article originally appeared in USA Today on January 18, 2005.
I recently went to a dinner party attended by Sen. Hillary Clinton. After the meal, an elegant Manhattanite seated beside me asked the senator about a military draft. "Without one," the woman asserted, "they’ll never get my educated and talented boys." I’m sure she’s right. These days, people of means routinely reject military service.
Until a generation ago, the children of presidents, oilmen and bankers regularly saw service. Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Kennedy, Prescott Bush — all titans — had sons who served.
Today, 1 percent of those serving in Congress have a child in the armed forces — an institution that, according to military sociologist Charles Moskos, is bereft of "children of the privileged." That’s too bad. The real losers here are the young and privileged adults themselves.
I was, by many measures, a child of privilege, too. I came from a manicured suburb, attended expensive schools — Bryn Mawr, Princeton — and served as an aide in the Clinton White House. I’ve worked for charitable foundations, a white-glove law firm, and I still raise money for the Democratic Party. From these perches, the military seemed another world.
Life with a Marine
Then I married a Marine Corps officer and came to see the narrowness of the "us-and-them" view of military service. During my husband’s six-month deployments — airlifting aid to East Timor, sorting through the fog of war in Baghdad — and from living with military people, I’ve learned what military service is about. As one who was weaned on the ideologies of the American left, I’ve been forced to reconsider some assumptions. I’ve come to believe that, even for the "haves" of society, the military offers much to admire and emulate.
If I could address the country’s fortunate young who imagine themselves one day making a difference, this is what I would say: You expect to do well in life. No one you know is in the military. There’s a war going on that you think was a mistake or, perhaps, a good idea gone wrong. You think military service is for people without money or skills — not someone like you.
Now, consider this proposition: Joining the military may make you a better person and profoundly inform your entire life. Military service nurtures belief, without irony, in the tenets that founded this country, and a love of country distinct from jingoism. Its every action expresses awe for the noble experiment of liberal democracy.
Servicemembers provide the defense that is a precondition of our pursuit of individual happiness and common good. Service fosters a love of strangers and comrades you hope to keep safe. When this nation, through the voice of its elected leader, asks you to help protect our freedoms, your role has meaning. Answering the call is not a career move, but an act of the heart.
Now more than ever
As long as there is an impulse to evil in this intertwined world, an impulse to take advantage, enslave, seize power from the weak; as long as our enemies embrace their cult of death; as long as those passions hold sway in whole regions, we need to be vigilant of our security.
Moreover, our military has become an arm of democratic hopes around the world. In the wake of the catastrophic tsunami in South Asia, it is the U.S. military that is providing the most effective relief. America’s armed forces build roads and dams in Africa. They conduct diplomacy around the world the way that the State Department, with its tiny budget, simply cannot.
I ask political leaders — few of whom served in the military, many of whom will stand in this week’s inaugural salute to the troops — to join me in this plea. Enlisting in the military won’t make you richer, fatten your résumé or bring the material gains that dazzle society. It may make you better, though. And it will bring you closer to the heart of this country. True, there are some who do wrong in that role. You can be one who does right.
For your service, you will not only develop values and perspective, you will make this country fairer and stronger. Then in your middle age, you can be part of a new elite: a civilian leader who understands the armed forces. No country can prosper when its leaders lack wisdom on national defense. The service you provide later, as a wise leader, may do our country the greatest good.
Kathryn Roth-Douquet is an attorney and a former aide in the Clinton White House who produced presidential events.