August 27, 2006
SALISBURY, Mass. // The Marine Corps has just announced that it is calling back several thousand Marines from inactive reserve units. After Sept. 11, all our president asked of most Americans was to go shopping, travel and maintain the economy. But our service members are asked to make sacrifices most Americans wouldn't dream of.
Many Americans are saying that our troops are sacrificing in vain. They are wrong. So are those who claim that if you want to support the troops, you have to support the president. Both misunderstand the meaning of military service in our democracy.
My youngest son, John, joined the Marines in 1999. Bill Clinton was president. The nightmare of Sept. 11 was still in the realm of the unthinkable. John was trained to serve as a Marine wherever he might be sent, not for any particular war. He served five years and returned safely from two combat tours in Afghanistan - a "good war," according to most pundits and opinion polls - and after a mission in Iraq, a war gone "bad."
I was fortunate. My son survived. A friend lost her only child.
Mindy Evnin's son was killed in Iraq. On a sweltering day last month, my wife and I drove from our home in Massachusetts to Burlington, Vt., to visit Mark's grave. Standing in front of that young Marine's headstone, I was overwhelmed by sorrow, fury at our president's mishandling of the war and by gratitude for Mark's life well-lived. Those emotions aren't as contradictory as they might seem.
I e-mailed a civilian friend about visiting Mark's grave. "To me," he answered, "the soldiers who are dying in Iraq should not have been there in the first place. ... If they die, they will have died in vain because the war is all a tissue of lies and/or failed policies."
Did Mark and thousands of others die in vain?
We need to take a step back from the bitter debate over the Iraq war and look at the deeper meaning of service. Does it change when wars go badly? If Mark had been killed in Afghanistan, would that have been a more noble sacrifice than being killed in Iraq?
Maybe it would be helpful to consider the significance of service in a less politicized context. When a fireman runs up the stairs while everyone else runs down, the value of his action is unrelated to who started the fire, or whether those saved are "worthy." And the morality of his action doesn't depend on his motives or whether his leaders are truthful or wise. It is all about what he does once he's called upon to act on behalf of all of us.
While we are busy looking out for ourselves, that fireman is busy looking out for us. His willingness to serve is a victory for community, social responsibility, compassion and bravery.
What did Mark die for?
He did not die for George Bush's ever-changing rationalizations: "finding WMD," "freeing Iraq" or "bringing democracy to the Middle East." And in all probability, if he was like my son, Mark never thought much about why he volunteered. The point is, he did, and in combat he acted on the belief that the Marines standing next to him were more important than he was - and, by extension that his country was more important than his individual right to comfort and safety.
Service in our democracy is not about politics. My son's volunteering in the Clinton era, then being sent to two "Bush wars," one "good" and the other "bad," handily illustrates the fact that the act of volunteering has nothing to do with fighting any war in particular and everything to do with service for service's sake.
Volunteering is a pre-political statement. And if you believe that American democracy is worthwhile, no matter what its imperfections, then the act of volunteering to be sent wherever your country needs you must be acknowledged as a priceless gift from the individual citizen to his or her country. This gift's morality doesn't depend on the rightness or wrongness of any war but on the soldier's high-stakes commitment to the value of our democratic experiment.
Mindy wrote me: "I don't know if Mark was a 'hero.' He did what he was asked to do, and he did it without hesitation. ... Maybe that is heroic."
It was. Our troops volunteer with no guarantee of success. They serve with or without support from other Americans. Now, some are being recalled involuntarily to participate in the fragile exercise of self-rule by equipping our government "of the people" to take action.
There are several thousand Marines who thought that their time of duty was done. Now they are going to be sent back into combat. They will be unhappy, even angry. Some will believe the president is wrong to send them, and their families will be sick with worry. But our Marines will go.
Their lives - and, inevitably for some, their deaths - present us with a stark question: Is citizenship only about enjoying personal preferences, or should we take responsibility for those around us, and by extension for our country?
We don't all need to serve in the military, but in the face of the sacrifice of those who do, what is our excuse for just going shopping? How we answer the question posed to us by their service will decide the health, morality and ultimately the survival of our democracy.
Read the entire article on the Baltimore Sun website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.