On Memorial Day, the nation does well both to remember those who have died fighting the nation's wars and the importance of the citizen-warrior for preserving democracy.
Perhaps the greatest threat the nation faces is internal rather than external. In a New York Times commentary published yesterday, retired U.S. Army Lt. General Karl Eikenberry and Stanford history professor emeritus David M. Kennedy expressed concern about the gap developing between Americans and their military(Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart, May 26, 2013). They identified three components of the gap:
- The post-Vietnam War decision to replace the citizen-soldier Army with an all-volunteer force substantially diminished the tie between citizens and the military. Only 0.5% of the population now serves in the military, compared with 12% during WWII. In 1975, 70% of the members of Congress had military service; today, only 20% do. Conversely, many military families view the military as the "family business," perhaps signaling the emergence of a military caste, something that history suggests will end poorly.
- Technology helps to insulate civilians from the military. The military's portion of the federal budget is under 20%, compared to 45% at the height of the Vietnam War. Technologies such as remotely piloted drones accelerate isolating civilians from the military and its activities.
- Expansion of the military's role from warfighting to nation building further blurs distinctions about the military's proper role.
Eikenberry and Kennedy propose restoring a draft, conducted by lottery, to meet military manpower requirements, Congress taking back from the President its Constitutionally mandated war making powers, paying for wars with taxes instead of off-budget special appropriations, and decreased reliance on contractors. All of these are good changes, ones that will reduce militarism and help to preserve, if not strengthen, democracy.
My fellow Bowdoin College graduate, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (a few years ahead of me, I hasten to add!), wrote the following poem, the first well known poem for Memorial Day (or Decoration Day, as the holiday was known in the Civil War era), which The Atlantic published in June 1882:
Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentry's shot alarms!
Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet
At the cannon's sudden roar,
Or the drum's redoubling beat.
But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
No wound that bleeds and aches.
All is repose and peace,
Untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
It is the Truce of God!
Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.