Of the many things that make America unique amongst the nations of the world, the relationship of her military to the general population is cardinal. We have always been a society of citizen-soldiers whose freedom was won largely through the efforts of the militias of whom even The Bill of Rights makes specific mention.
There is another aspect of the American view of its armed forces very striking to someone who, like me, served in an army that drew its inspiration from the British. As a member of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, I wore my regimental connection proudly, never more so than on those occasions when we marked our fallen. Invariably, our cenotaphs and memorials would begin with the legend “to the glory of God and those who fell in the service of King and country.” Over the years, I saw this was a fairly standard formulation in every country I visited — save the one that is now my home: America. Here, such memorials are generally dedicated “to those who fell in defense of freedom.”
This is no small distinction; in many respects, it is central to the definition of who we are as a people.
Imagine, then, how distressing it was to hear Ken Burns, in a discussion of his documentary “The War,” separate the military of World War II from those who serve us today by speaking of the earlier conflict’s citizen army as different from today, where we have “a military class with nothing to do with the rest of us.” We cannot allow that point of view to prevail.
While it is true the end of conscription has meant the raising of a professional army, the notion it has been separated from the rest of our national life simply because the generality need not serve is dangerous to the fabric of our people. And it need not be true. It is in our own hands. Besides the large and extensive network of civilian support systems for the military, stretching from the USO all the way to veteran’s medical support charities, there is another obligation upon us all: to learn the history of our conflicts and those who fought in them and to understand the meaning of their service.
That is why the educational center currently being built by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund near Maya Lin’s stunning black granite Memorial on the National Mall is a matter of concern for all Americans and something we’re all obliged to support. Non-political in its content and supported by Americans from across the totality of the political spectrum, it does not seek anything other than to provide a human understanding of those who served in the Vietnam War and, indeed, to show our appreciation for all who have worn the uniform of our armed forces. This task is a vital civic duty, an important step in reconciling all our population with our military history.
Each soldier’s journey is unique. I enlisted with nothing more than a grade nine education and no family to fall back on. I found in my service a meaning larger than myself, a sense of pride and self-respect that led me, upon my discharge, to a city college for a BA and then a law degree at Canada’s premier university, McGill, and, finally, to graduate work at Oxford University in England.
I was one of the truly fortunate. Many others were far less so, some now in unmarked graves in distant places. But their service should be holy to us, and it behooves us all to do our share in remembering who they were and ensuring that future generations honor them.
That is why an educational center is all of our business: for truly, those who serve have everything to do with “the rest of us.”
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