Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #029. First published in the St. Cloud Times Dec. 22, 2009

In October I said I trust President Obama and would support his decision about Afghanistan, whatever it might be. In November I highlighted the disconnect between patriotic sentiments of Veterans Day and our disregard for the privilege and responsibility of voting.

I was thinking maybe this was enough in that vein — until I read a stunning New York Times column (Dec. 8) by Bob Herbert, called “A Fearful Price.” It refers to a study by the Rand Corp., published in the journal Pediatrics, detailing the emotional toll that eight years of war, with multiple deployments, has taken on service members’ children.

Herbert quotes one youngster: ”I hope it’s not him on the news getting hurt.”

The instant I read these words what came to mind were the hundreds of photos I’ve seen at the conclusion of PBS NewsHour broadcasts: “And now to our honor roll of American service personnel killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Here in silence are nine (or 12 or 20) more.”

I’m always transfixed by those pictures, and especially by the ages — 19, 32, 26, 43, 18. But how unutterably awful it must be for the kid who sees daddy or mommy appearing on the screen

Now that the president’s decision has been made, I confirm what I promised two months ago — I support it, in full knowledge that it will affect our two nephews in the military, and their wives and children. I wish the commitment of additional troops weren’t necessary, but Obama has made a persuasive case, both at West Point and in Oslo, and my confidence is bolstered by evidence of real, sustained debate within his administration.

But the president needs to add a more direct challenge to all of us to sacrifice for this effort. This is Herbert’s point: Service personnel and their families are paying “a fearful price” while the rest of us hardly notice.

I was 2 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, so I have few clear memories of World War II, but from my parents, and from books and documentaries, I know that the entire nation was involved. Everybody knew the stakes were high, everybody knew it wasn’t a time for business as usual. President Roosevelt had signed the Selective Service and Training Act in 1940, instituting the draft. Responsibility for combat was spread more broadly than it is today.

And I do remember rationing books and victory gardens, and that there were things we wanted but couldn’t have because there was an important struggle going on.

Reinstitution of the draft is high on the list of political nonstarters, though were it to begin again, the process is now designed to operate with more fairness than the system as it functioned during the Vietnam War.

Absent a draft, we have no immediate, relentless, unavoidable reminder that men and women who represent us are in harm’s way every hour, and their families — especially their children — are the ones paying the price, and not only the families whose loved ones are killed.

Multiple deployments, and the physical and mental damage sustained by so many of the troops who return, disrupt the rhythms and patterns of family life way beyond the dislocations that are part of normal ups and downs.

And yet we balk at even paying what it costs for our troops to protect us from people who have attacked us and would again, and who could all too easily gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal (nonmythical WMD). The resistance to any tax increase to cover even partially the expense of the Afghanistan war is obscene.

Herbert cites George Washington, from a letter to Alexander Hamilton: “It must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even his personal service to the defense of it.”

Our 44th president needs to call us to citizenship the way our first did.