Volume XI, Issue 13 ~ March 27 - April 2, 2003

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Buttress Pride with Duty
One Way or Another, We Should All Serve
by Al McKegg

Edward Allen Faine’s recent Commentary (Volume XI, Issue 7, Feb. 13) was a deeply patriotic argument for bringing back the national draft, with its roots in his military service. My service had many similarities, particularly in its being my first meaningful contact with Americans from other economic strata.

Forty years later, I vividly recall a morning in what was probably my second week of basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. As the platoon dressed, one man stayed in his bunk, occasionally spitting blood into a can on the floor. I was told the dentist had pulled all his lower teeth. A few days later, his upper teeth were pulled. When his gums healed, he was fitted with false teeth.

The radical treatment shocked me, but gradually the reality of the boy’s poverty hit home. By the time the Army dentist — probably his first ever — saw him, his teeth were beyond salvaging. The dental niceties of my middle-class upbringing: checkups, cleanings, braces? Not in the world of his childhood. You can’t fight if you can’t eat, so at least he got dentures at government expense.

Mr. Faine’s reasons for reinstating the draft reach deep into our country’s egalitarian principles. To his reasons I’d like to add one. Duty.

Since 9-11, pride stickers with our national colors are everywhere. To my way of thinking, pride means nothing if it doesn’t include a sense of duty, a sense that we each owe this country a debt. It appears that many people today feel they owe the country nothing. This attitude is not new, but I think it became more prevalent when, in revulsion over our tragic involvement in Vietnam, the draft was jettisoned.

When there was a draft, particularly before college deferments became fashionable, every young American man, with few exceptions, knew he could be called to war. That was one of the basic American duties: Learn about candidates, vote, pay taxes, maybe even fight and die.

Duty today? The presidential-election voting rate has dropped from 62 percent in the 1960s to 50 percent now (to 35 percent in the last congressional election.) Greed rules in spectacular fashion: People grown wealthy by virtue of the American system move out of the country to avoid paying taxes. Old-line American companies move their headquarters offshore or structure quasi-legal accounting schemes to avoid taxes on billions of dollars of profit. Corporate tax avoidance is so popular that the percentage of the federal budget that comes from corporate taxes has shrunk drastically in the last 30 years while the percentage from individual taxes has grown in proportion. It appears corporate America believes it doesn’t even owe the country its share of the money it needs to function.

If President Kennedy’s challenge, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” were posed today, folks would snicker. And I’m afraid many of the younger generation, not tax evaders, just ordinary Americans, would simply be puzzled. What does my country ask of me? What can it?

When a draft is active and the country has the machinery in place not to just ask but demand that I risk my life for American principles, the depth of my debt is clear. It dwarfs the obligation to pay taxes, to vote, indeed all other obligations. When my country cannot demand that, the amount I owe is, well, negotiable. Talk to my accountant, OK?

Reinstating the draft — a 21st-century version that requires some service (not necessarily military) from every young American — would buttress pride with duty. It would make Enron-style accountants much harder to find. It would remind young Americans that, if they are to pass to their grandchildren an America with the same principles as was passed to them, each of them has a duty. A duty built of pieces that aren’t all pleasant. Taxes. Voting. Service. Perhaps, God forbid, even their life.

More pressing than this individual duty is the duty of our leaders not to risk our armed forces until the best efforts of diplomacy have failed. It’s painful to watch our leaders belittle countries whose land and people have been ravaged by war as modern America never has. I wonder if they would so easily belittle and so quickly commit our forces if war were part of their own experience.

Al McKegg is a freelance writer and songwriter who lives in West Friendship. He served in the Army from 1961 to 1964 and is a member of Veterans for Peace.


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Last updated March 27, 2003 @ 1:57am