If you think doing live television is easy, ask Chris Hayes. On his program Sunday, during an otherwise placid panel discussion, Hayes said he was uncomfortable with invoking the notion of valor when discussing those who have been killed in war. That unleashed an avalanche of opinion—vituperative, supportive, thoughtful, and banal—that disputes the common adage that all publicity is good publicity.
But it is worth thinking about the notions of service and sacrifice at a time when, as Hayes and many others have observed, they are rare commodities.
During the Second World War, more than 20 million Americans were in uniform, and every household had at least one member of the family serving. Nobody likes war, especially those who have to fight it, and indeed it took a great deal to get this country to do the right thing. By the time we were attacked by the Japanese and thus had a popular excuse for fighting, the war in Europe had been raging for almost three years. In Asia, people had been slaughtered for nearly a decade, while we remained uninvolved.
But men and women in uniform saved the world, and their selflessness was the glue that bound the country tightly together, even after 1945. Service and sacrifice were shared experiences that forged us into a far better, healthier and more egalitarian community. We lost nearly half a million Americans fighting the Axis, and whatever else can be said about the dysfunctional security structure of the postwar world and the inability of the Allies to prevent further bloodshed, it was the sacrifice of those heroes that freed millions.
Today, there are about 1.5 million American citizens on active duty, which equals merely one-half of one percent of us. Only one household in about 150 can claim someone serving. Most Americans do not know anyone in uniform, and because we lack the political will to do otherwise, we have engineered our armed forces to require only volunteers. To our great convenience but our collective discredit, we have effectively outsourced national service to a very small number of our neighbors. It is even more striking that a significant number of these people are not citizens, and yet honorable service and even death in combat cannot earn them citizenship. Our national illogic and hypocrisy are genuinely stunning.
Even after losing more Americans on 9/11 than we lost at Pearl Harbor, if we are still sanguine about national security it’s because we do not participate in it. It is easy to love the troops when you don’t have to be the troops. But those of us who have served in war, who have lost comrades at our sides in the crucible of armed combat, know better than anyone else that we owe every one of the fallen a debt of gratitude that we can never repay.
Retired Col. Jack Jacobs is an msnbc military analyst. He is the co-author of Basic: Surviving Boot Camp and Basic Training and If Not Now, When? Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need.