“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
– John F. Kennedy, 1961
“What’s in it for me?”
– Too Many People, 2021
Those comments by JFK in his inaugural address seem sort of quaint now. His call to sacrifice and service may have resonated 60 years ago, but our present experience mocks it.
Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, and we go through the motions of honoring those who have put on the uniform and – in many cases – risked their lives in the service of the Republic.
If we run into someone in his or her Army Combat Uniform at the Five Guys or Rite-Aid, we might say, “Thank you for your service.” But how sincere are we?
Ever since the end of the draft in 1973, we have had an all-volunteer military and one consequence of that is that the typical American is far removed from the experiences and burdens of war. Growing up as a Baby Boomer, nearly all of us had fathers who served during World War II; it was our generation that fought the Vietnam War.
The end result is that only a tiny percentage of our populace has ever taken that oath and had the experience that ranged from inconvenience to deadly danger. It’s for those reasons we are so nonchalant about getting involved in conflicts thousands of miles away.
So let’s – for a moment – make the assumption that we really do want to “thank you for your service.” Here’s what we might do.
- Give the same recognition to people who enlist in the military as we do for those admitted to colleges and universities.
- Support and elect public officials who will put American lives in harm’s way only when there’s a real threat to us, for which there is public support, and when there’s a clear and attainable path to victory.
- Extend the requirement for men to register for the Selective Service to women as well; equal rights must be accompanied by equal responsibility. Come to the understanding that any future draft – and it will come some day – will be truly universal.
- Advocate for first-class medical care for veterans, including mental health treatment. Veteran’s hospitals should be among the finest in the nation.
- Mandatory national service in peacetime may not be politically practical, but a voluntary national service program – with plenty of financial and other incentives – could provide medical, environmental, educational and other “troops” to combat climate change, improve schools and provide health care to more people.
Of course, none of this will make you rich financially. But we used to believe there was a different kind of “wealth” in the pride of serving your fellow man and nation.
Some folks think paying taxes is their whole obligation to society. That’s fine, I suppose, as long as you are comfortable with letting other people take up the heavier burdens of living in America.
But, if you can step up and do something that is really beneficial to veterans, past, present and future, they will be able to sincerely say, “Thank you for your service.”
Jim Tortolano’s “Retorts” is posted every other week, alternating with “Usually Reliable Sources.”