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I attended my son David’s graduation from Marine boot camp at MCRD Parris Island on Friday. My Marine served as Squad Leader, achieved expert level in marksmanship, and marched in the front rank of his platoon, despite enduring a serious sprain on his previously-broken ankle on day 2 of training and bronchial pneumonia that landed him in off-base hospital for 52 hours. He weighed in at 120 lbs. at graduation, down 27 lbs. from arrival. For the first time in my life I understand the true meaning of the expression “bursting with pride.”
During my two days on the base, I got to see the whole range of “boots,” from the shell-shocked kids reeling from the disorientation of three days without sleep and with the constant barking of DIs, to the earnest drilling of first-phase recruits (they looked pretty tight to me, but totally raw to my son), to the lock-step precision of the graduates–an awesome and inspiring sight that every American should have the opportunity to witness. I also saw some pint-sized school-age cadets in dark cammies, playing at being Marines but learning real lessons for the future, whether they ultimately become jarheads or not.
It is gratifying that all the services have achieved their enlistment quotas and are able to pick and choose the best recruits rather than lowering their standards (note: the Marine Corps has not had this problem in many years). Yet what does it say that we are turning away capable young men and women who want to serve their nation? Something about this situation simply does not compute.
What I saw last week was a group of 523 young Americans pushed beyond their level of endurance, achieving things they would have thought were impossible, submerging their individual desires, wishes, and prejudices to weld together a group; eliminating the words “I” and “me” from their vocabularies, and sacrificing themselves for a greater good–viz., you and me and the country we are privileged to be citizens of.
It was immensely gratifying to travel home on Friday night and see the gratitude, affection and respect that our young men in uniform receive from nearly everyone they meet. It certainly lifted up my son. At the same time, it evoked shameful memories of the way soldiers were treated by civilians during the era of Vietnam–and most of those were simply honoring their legal obligations to obey the selective service law, not volunteers.
Over the last three months, David and his fellow recruits learned lessons that most people never attain in a lifetime. They are lessons that my father, my uncles, my father-in-law, and his brothers had an opportunity to learn during World War II. There is something profoundly valuable about national service–military service in particular, but not necessarily that alone. Not everyone is cut out for fighting; as the Bible says (Deuteronomy 20:8), “Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own.” But God knows the nation has needs besides military service that could benefit from the labor of young men and women.
I have taken withering fire on this site several times in the past for advocating a return to the draft. But seeing how much is gained in discipline, capacity for hard work, and patriotism from military service–seeing how much my son and his buddies have grown–has made my conviction stronger than ever. Leaving aside entirely the motive of lack of courage (a cheap shot–who can see into another man’s heart?), It seems to me that the arguments against universal national service are at base selfish. With the privileges of citizenship must come responsibilities. Our people’s devotion to liberty has been a double-edged sword from the start: the “sunshine patriot” has a lineage as old as independence. Our freedom was won by a dedicated minority; a callous Continental Congress, fearing the wrath of their constituents, routinely refused to levy taxes adequate to pay the Army or even keep them in shoes. They were willing enough, however, to take every advantage of the liberty their neighbors–the dreaded “standing army”–had purchased for them.
We are privileged to live in a democracy, and to enjoy freedoms most people in the world can only dream of. To a large degree, we owe those freedoms to young men and women like my son. Why should the burdens of liberty enjoyed by so many be shouldered by so few?