Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day, Old School Style

cross-posted from Dagblog

I spent most of Memorial Day weekend, all but the day itself, at my spouse's college reunion. It was a lovely weekend among pleasant people on a delightful campus. My spouse went to an extremely famous college very much like the one I went to. In fact, our old schools are traditional rivals, which means that they resemble each other so deeply and thoroughly that they need football to create the illusion that there's any difference.

Being with my spouse's classmates, in her old college town, is a through-the-looking glass experience for me: all of the details are strange but the place as a whole is uncannily familiar. And her classmates, as a group, are statistically identical to my own. All the same people, just not the same actual persons. (My spouse, of course, views my old school and my old classmates in much the same way.) So looking at her class becomes a way for me to see my own more clearly in certain ways. It's easier to look at them all together, to see them as part of our society at large, when I'm not distracted with my own personal relationships or memories about this individual or that one. In some ways, I know too much about who my own classmates once were to see clearly who they have become. My spouse's classmates appear to me as they are today, and seeing them helps me understand what my classmates and I actually look like.

Being on an old and beautiful campus, of course, means passing old and beautiful war memorials: long lists of fallen alumni who gave their lives serving the United States, from the Revolutionary War until today. But I did not see many recent names. Among the many fine old-school traditions that my spouse's classmates honored this weekend, there was not a moment of reflection for the classmates that they had lost to our recent wars. My own classmates do not pause to think about our classmates who have died in uniform, either. This is because none of us have died in Afghanistan or Iraq. Almost none of us have served. There are individual exceptions, here and there. My own graduating class includes at least one highly dedicated (and relatively prominent) professional soldier. But as a group, we didn't answer the call. I'm not even sure we were called, at least not by our nation's leaders.

Until after World War II, it was routine for the sons of privilege and wealth to join the military in times of war. It was, in fact, expected. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, about as privileged and self-indulgent an Ivy Leaguer as they ever came, actually had his rich father pull strings to get him into the Navy. (JFK had already flunked the easier Army physical, and had such serious health problems that he really should not have been let into the service.) Not serving was unthinkable; if JFK had not fought, he would have lost status to his peers who did.

Things are different, now. The wealthy and privileged do not lead our nation on the battlefield. The change has come for many reasons, good as well as bad. We now have a professional standing army during peacetime, and don't count on training an army of green volunteers at the start of every war. We don't hand out commissions (or, for that matter, admission to famous colleges) according to class status the way we used to. And the hereditary rich no longer consider it their charge to lead in every national endeavor. (No one these days would just make Teddy Roosevelt a colonel when he signed up.) The sons of the Ivy League aren't needed to serve as our country's wartime officer corps now; we have an officer corps that knows what it's doing.

But something is lost, too, when the class that takes the lead in business and politics and the arts has lost its connection to our military. We have become a country with a professional military, filled with career soldiers, and a country of military families who fight the home front all by themselves, without any help or much thought from the rest of us. Their sacrifices are seldom remembered and never shared by the lovely folks at my class reunion. We've had armies in the field now for ten and a half years. In that time, my classmates and I have not sacrificed and not been asked to sacrifice. When the country went to war, I stayed in the classroom, and my old classmates stayed in their law firms and hedge funds and Hollywood production offices. While our troops were in the field, many of us got very, very rich. Our leaders encouraged us to do exactly that. In fact, the richest of us were given a massive tax cut, so that we could grow richer still.

I don't say this to point fingers at my wife's lovely classmates, or my old friends from my own school. They can all say that someone else, someone better suited for the job than they, was already on the job. (I'll admit right now that I would make a pretty bad soldier.) I'm not blaming my friends, or myself, for not answering the call. The plain fact is, we were never called.

But it's also true that we were once a country whose ruling class fought personally in its wars, and put its own sons in harm's way. Those people might have felt an unattractive entitlement to lead, but at least sometimes balanced that with the idea that their privilege carried obligations. We have become a country where the ruling class no longer feels that its wealth and privilege obliges it to do anything but increase that privilege and wealth, where the sense of entitlement is absolute and pure. That, too, is worth remembering.

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