THE NEW AMERICAN SEGREGATION: THE MILITARY

by Richard Reeves

CHICAGO -- It seems that I only see American soldiers at airports. Walking forever through O'Hare here, every man and woman in uniform is greeted by the same line: "Thank you for your service."

At American Airlines, military personnel are allowed to board before other economy class passengers, after first class and business class passengers are comfortable in their big chairs.

It all makes me cringe. The reason for all this small courtesy is the guilt felt by the rest of us. This small band of brothers and sisters are doing our most difficult work, much of it as unnecessary as it is dangerous.

The volunteer military is the new American segregation. They know it and we know it. We also know that sooner or later a detached military will undermine democracy itself. Interestingly, Adm. Mike Mullen, the retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has spent a good deal of his time and energy trying to get this point across to the nation.

Adm. Mullen's latest effort was his commencement speech last week at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "I fear that they do not know us," said the admiral. "I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle. ... A people uninformed about what we are asking the military to endure is a people inevitably unable to fully grasp the scope of the responsibilities our Constitution levies upon them."

"It is not enough today that we deploy," he said. "It is not enough that we fight. It is not enough today that we serve, unless we also serve the greater cause of American self-government and everything that underpins it."

A month earlier, Mullen had said in a commencement speech at Florida State University:

"With less than 1 percent of our population serving, I do worry that one day, the American people and our troops may no longer know each other the way we should. When I consider how much that 1 percent has repeatedly sacrificed, especially our wounded, their families and the families of the fallen, I think it's worth asking ourselves as Americans whether we're doing enough to help them and, more broadly, our nation and our community."

"Warfare has become something for other people to do," added Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who is also leaving his post this year. "With each passing decade fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle."

The all-volunteer military is, to me, Richard Nixon's last dirty trick. He pushed for it in 1969 because he understood the root cause of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam was the anguish and anxiety of young people concerned about being drafted -- and killed. End the draft and you end the demonstrations -- and that is what happened. As Gates said, we became a nation with a paid army, young men and women drawn from the poorer parts of the country, volunteering in the hope of breaking out of ghettos of despair, poverty, ignorance and boredom.

They fight well, very well, our volunteers. Our role, in addition to paying them, is to watch. War has become like the National Football League. Yeah, a few guys get hurt, but it's all pretty exciting entertainment -- and it's free for most of us. So we send the same people, our volunteers, again and again into unending wars because, though we watch the action, we actually have no personal interest in what the game is about.

I personally believe we should reinstate Selective Service or universal national service, but I know that's not going to happen. The volunteer military is just too easy, Congress doesn't have to do anything unpopular and the rest of us can get by saying, "Thank you for your service, whoever you are."