Mark Shields: When Americans really were exceptional
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist and my valued colleague on PBS’ “NewsHour,” has told of having heard a rebroadcast of “Command Performance,” a radio show that went out to U.S. troops everywhere during World War II. This particular show was aired on V-J Day — when the Japanese surrendered, ending the war. David was impressed by both the total absence of any chest-thumping self-congratulations and by what he called the “tone of self-effacement and humility.”
Bing Crosby, who headed up the show’s cast — which included Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant and Dinah Shore — said simply: “All anybody can do is thank God it’s over. Today, though, our deep-down feeling is one of humility.” Burgess Meredith quoted the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who had been killed only four months earlier at Okinawa and had written in anticipation: “We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud.” Brooks contrasts, unfavorably, our own “me” era of terminal narcissism with that sadly vanished 1945 “humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else.”
Then, war did indeed demand equality of sacrifice. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had four sons, all of whom served in combat. Among them, through their individual bravery, they earned the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Future U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush survived enemy fire. But of the 15 major-party 2016 presidential candidates remaining as of this writing, none has spent a single day in military service.
Think about it. During World War II, William McChesney Martin, the president of the New York Stock Exchange, declined an officer’s commission and chose to enter the Army as a private earning $21 a month. Future Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg and heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis — along with such stars as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Tony Bennett — proudly served. “The sense that nobody is that different from anybody else” defined the nation.
The spirit of citizen responsibility and collective sacrifice ruled the homefront, where Americans accepted the rationing of sugar, butter, meat, cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline. Citizens collected scrap metal, tin cans, paper and cooking fat for the war effort, and in neighborhood “victory gardens,” they raised one-third of the vegetables and fruit the nation consumed. That, of course, was in a less enlightened era, when racism and anti-Semitism (we hadn’t discovered Islamophobia) were common, before our sensitive, consciousness-raised time.
But the United States in 1973 abandoned the value that war is everyone’s responsibility by switching to a volunteer military. We legally exempted the sons of affluence and influence from having to bear the hardship Dick Cheney had braved during the Vietnam War, when he was forced to obtain five draft deferments in order to avoid the personal inconvenience of serving in a war he patriotically backed.
Abandoned is the timeless truth that armies do not fight wars; countries fight wars. And if the people of a country refuse personally to bear any burden, to pay any price (even refusing to cover the cost of the conflict), then that country ought never to send an army into war. The enlisted ranks of today’s military are recruited disproportionately from America’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. With an officer corps filled with the children of already serving officers, the U.S. has a military isolated from a larger, civilian population, which has little understanding of or interest in what the military is doing — just as long as its sons don’t have to do it. It’s a long way from the V-J Day “humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else.”