Memorial Day lies on the intersection of war, patriotism, citizenship, and memory. It memorializes those who fell in battle defending this country. Memorial Day originated as Declaration Day in 1868 when Union veterans established it as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of Union Civil War dead.
A question raised by Memorial Day is, does a person, deriving the benefits of American citizenship, have the duty to fight, and even die, for the country? That question is as old as this country.
During the American Revolution, approximately one-third of the residents of the American colonies supported the Revolution. Even fewer fought for independence.
Conscription, a.k.a. the draft, has always been with us. American colonies used conscription to fill the ranks of their militias. During the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy imposed conscription, leading to riots on both sides.
Every male who grew up during the Vietnam War era has his own story about the draft. I have mine.
My father was a member of “The Greatest Generation.” He served in the Pacific theater. A lawyer, in his 30s with an infant son (me), he volunteered to serve in the Army. His experiences made him gung ho military. This affected his attitude when I became eligible for military service.
I entered Columbia in 1959 at the tender age of 16 with the intention of becoming a nuclear engineer. At that time, Vietnam was a relatively minor skirmish. My father thought it was great for me to sign up for the NROTC program at Columbia, the only one available. His argument was that I was young, I could serve 20 years, retire with military benefits, and start a second career. Of course, my mother, like many Jewish mothers, was against this.
I dutifully reported to the NROTC office during Freshman Week. I told the officer that I was interested in the program and that I was in the Engineering School as a potential nuclear engineer. His eyes lit up. The father of the nuclear submarine corps was Hyman Rickover, a distinguished Engineering School alum. He gave me the sales pitch. It sounded good.
However, to become a commissioned officer you had to be 21. I was scheduled to graduate 10 months before turning 21. I asked the officer how I would be affected. He said either I could wait until my birthday or the Navy would waive the requirement.
Neither alternative was desirable. I did not want to waste 10 months of my life waiting for the Navy. The second alternative suggested that the Navy was a little too anxious to have me, reminding me of Groucho Marx’s quip, “I do not want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
I told the officer that I would think about it and walked out, never to return.
By the time that I graduated in 1963, Vietnam had heated up and everyone I knew was looking for an exemption. I was no exception.
I had the benefit of being an engineer. I went to work for Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of the Bell System. As a communications company, Western Electric was considered a defense establishment and I was able to get a critical skills deferment.
One of the reasons I went this route was that I was bothered by the idea of fighting for a country, South Vietnam, whose citizens were not willing to fight for themselves.
Which brings us back to the earlier question of the duty of citizens to fight for their country.
One answer is Stephen Decatur’s quote: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”
On the other hand, there is the line from John Lennon’s Imagine, which has become an anthem for antiwar movements: “Nothing to kill or die for.”
I’ve been bothered by this line because, if there is nothing to die for, it means you have no core principles willing to defend. Interestingly, our global adversaries do not have antiwar movements.
This tension was a major theme of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, in which residents of the Federation were offered the option of “citizenship.” Only those who elected to go into military service, i.e. fight and die for the Federation, had the right to vote. Only if you are willing to die for your country should you have the right to determine how it is governed.
The Federation’s military, like the United States military today, was all-volunteer. The Los Angeles Times recently reported there is a growing split between the military and civilians due to the shrinking pool of volunteers, most of whom come from families with a military background, creating a warrior class distinct from the general population it protects. This lessens the contact between the two groups.
Perhaps it is time to revisit the concept of universal military service, male and female. Among the countries with mandatory service are Egypt, Iran, Israel, the Koreas, Russia, and Turkey. China requires mandatory military training.
Some of the benefits of universal service are enhancing integration of society as a whole and unit cohesion through shared goals and the willingness to fight for each other.
Just something to think of as Memorial Day recedes and another summer begins.