Opinion and Economic Analysis and Government & Economic Development and Military

Holiday a reminder of the value of public service

May 25, 2009

This Memorial Day weekend will be especially poignant for me and my family.

This will be the first time I have seen my younger brother, a boyish Air Force colonel, since he returned from a year in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also the last time I will see him before he departs on another two-year tour in Japan. His wife, also an Iraqi war veteran, is expecting their first child this autumn.

No doubt, the visit will be all too short. The urgency of this visit did make me think about the role of the all-volunteer military force.

The ending of the draft in 1973 ended three decades of compulsory military service in the United States. Compulsory military service had only twice before been imposed, once in World War I and once in the dark days of the Civil War.

Conscription and drafts are essentially a tax on men. Having fought as an infantryman at close proximity against draftees, I have strong reservations as to their wartime utility, though America's experience argues otherwise. I am not sure that is the whole story, though. We might care a great deal about what our military does for us as an institution in peacetime as well.

Many lament the loss of what might be called timeless values. I place these into two categories; both are exemplified and sustained by military service.

The first of these value categories has many catch phrases. I prefer "duty, honor, country," but there are other equally good tag lines.

A good many Americans find the notion of promoting these values a bit uncomfortable. To many, they simply seem quaint. Suffice it to say, most folks who feel this way have not been shot at. Fostering these values is probably more important than ever, but it isn't the most important value of military service. That is especially true in a republic. For you see, all countries have promoted some form of this first set of values. It can be horribly misused, unless combined with the second timeless value.

The second timeless value of military service in our republic is that of service. Public service in a republic is the physical expression of that simple but most powerful idea of the enlightenment. We each have value.

So here is my worry. While the all-volunteer force clearly prevents or wins its battles, often handily, it does not do much else. Perhaps it is too much to ask that a military also leverage itself to project some timeless values? But, we task our schools to do so, with mandatory volunteering and other Orwellian schemes. They do not do it well.

In the end, I am a bit uneasy or perhaps wistful. I have no real wish to return to a draft. I do wish that on this Memorial Day more of us understood both the sacrifice and benefits of military service, and that more of us carried these values into our lives, which are made safe and secure by those who serve today.
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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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