Before his marital infidelity discredited him, John Edwards spoke eloquently about “two Americas.” He talked of differences between the health care, financial stability, education and housing available to these two different parts of our society.
But there is another American divide that has created two other Americas: on one side the fighting men and women in our armed services (along with their families) and the rest of us on the other.
If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, look no further than the differences that have been institutionalized by the volunteer army. However much good was achieved by the decision to eliminate the military draft, surely the absence of shared sacrifice has contributed to the ease with which we take opposing positions to our fellow-citizens on matters that have to do with national security.
No longer does the USA pull together for the long haul in the way that was possible during World War II. In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing that their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because the people of this country (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods and the sheer terror of having their loved ones abroad and in harm’s way.
If a war is worth fighting, it should not have merit only because the children of other people are fighting it, even if they do so voluntarily.
These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. This book is about the officers who inform families that they have lost a loved one, and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.
The book takes no sides on the question of the War in Iraq. Yes, you will hear occasional comments in support or opposition, but you will not think as much about these policy questions as about the human beings you meet along the way. Several families will become your acquaintances as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will also get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine tasked to inform the families of their loss, the man who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.
Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed that they shall leave no comrade behind. And, consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on their door that changes everything, that creates a “before and after” without end.
I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. But I can say that it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not work to make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured that you will think about war, any war, differently after reading or listening to Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one that fights the wars and sends its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within that group, then there is nothing contained in this book that you do not already know at a level too deep for words.
If you have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your loved ones. It is thanks to the willingness of the few to serve on behalf of the many that the rest of us are safe.
We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, too detached from something of desperate importance: the work done far from home in our name by the children of other people. And too removed and distant from how these “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.
We need to remember that, for these families, the human cost never fully goes away.
They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”
We walk by them unaware every day…
Kafka said that “a book is like an ax, to break the frozen sea within us.”
This is such a book.
The maps above are the work of Allstrak, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Thanks for this article, Dr. Stein, shared by another blogger at “The Bully Pulpit.”
There is no military draft because we are permanently at war in some part of the world. Our army of “volunteers” has become a warrior class of that other America you spoke about.
Sad but true. Thanks for your comment.
Reblogged this on Darque Thoughts.
Thanks for visiting my site, the very nice compliments and for sending me this link. Based on this post, I have added Final Salute to my reading list! And, I’m following your website.
You are welcome. I’m glad the post resonated, as I hoped it would. Thanks for following my essays.
Reblogged this on spacefreedomlove and commented:
Reblogging Dr. Stein’s very apt article this Memorial Day weekend in honor of those who lost their lives in service.
Thanks for reposting this.
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Thank you for writing it.
I have read this book but only in part.
You touched on this divide with eloquence. In one of my previous career stops, I worked at a very large financial institution and was surrounded by a team of people who looked at (the veteran) me as an oddity. With OIF/OEF being in the first year or so of action talk of service was met with scoffing and dismissal. At first, I didn’t speak up that I was a veteran. I was embarrassed to admit it. The incredible disdain that they held for someone who would volunteer to serve…that only the uneducated and underprivileged consider being “cannon fodder.” When. I finally spoke up about my combat service, doubt and curiosity became the norm. How could I have done such a thing? To a person, I was the first person that they ever knew to have served. None of them had knowledge of any relatives ever having served. I was dumbfounded. My family lineage has men and women who have fought for this nation since the Revolution. Apparently, we are that class of people. One of my ancestors was in charge of defeating Lee at Gettysburg (if you know your ACW history, you can name him).
Yes, we serve. Yes, most Americans will never consider serving. I don’t lose sleep over that fact.
Thankyou for your excellent post and for guiding me to it!!
You are welcome, Will.
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