Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mark Shields: The one great speech of 2010

As we, mercifully, approach the end of this depressing campaign season that has done about as much for serious public debate as the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen, a campaign year when to call one’s opponent an “incumbent “ was grounds for libel, when we’ve been reminded again that apparently the only president who resisted pinning all his problems on the previous administration was George Washington, we should take note of the one memorable speech of this relentlessly dismal political year.

This speech was not given by any elected officeholder or candidate. It was that rare speech that did not seek to comfort the comfortable or pander by promising listeners an ouchless, painless future of endless tax cuts and balanced budgets. Nor did this speech blame all the nation’s and the listeners’ pains and trouble on an unpopular “them.” This speaker dared to do what neither President George W. Bush nor President Barack Obama has ever done since the U.S. invasion of Iraq: He explicitly urged the young men and women at an elite American university to join the U.S. military.

These were the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Duke University students, late last month: “So I would encourage you and all young Americans, especially those at the most selective universities who may not have considered the military, to do so. To go outside your comfort zone and take a risk in every sense of the word. To expand what you were capable of doing when it comes to leadership, responsibility, agility, selflessness and, above all, courage.”

Gates offered more than a call to arms. He spoke directly of an avoided undemocratic reality — that most Americans have grown detached from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the great civilian majority has come to view military service as “something for other people to do.”

Those “other people,” as Gates reminded us, come overwhelmingly from a “tiny sliver of America” concentrated in the South and the Rocky Mountain West, in rural areas and small towns. There is the distinct possibility that eventually the U.S. military and its leaders will be estranged — culturally and geographically — from the civilian population it is defending.

As of this writing, there are more than 310,534,000 of us living in the United States, and we are defended by roughly 2.4 million of our fellow citizens now on active military duty. This means that all the fighting, sacrificing and dying is being done by considerably less than 1 percent of all Americans and their loved ones.

While emphatically praising the professionalism and the competence of those now serving, Gates spoke of the service members’ repeated deployments and the extended separations from their families, as well as the unforgiving pressure and emotional scars. Suicides have increased in every branch of the U.S. military, and the divorce rate has almost doubled.

Every politician in shoe leather pays predictable, lip-service praise to those serving in uniform. But Gates told his audience, in and outside the hall, that while most Americans do respect and honor those who have volunteered to serve, the U.S. wars and enormous sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan are “a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally.” Absolutely and tragically true.

Nobody understood this as well as the late military scholar and ex-GI, Charles Moskos, who told me that the U.S. “national interest is determined not so much by the cause, itself, but instead by who is willing to die for that cause.”

Moskos continued: “Only when the privileged do military service, only when the elite youth are under fire does the nation define the cause as worth the blood of our young people.” He added that, in both World Wars, the British nobility had higher casualty rates than did the British working class.

Bob Gates, unlike either of the commander in chiefs under whom he has served, has challenged the nation’s gifted and advantaged youth to acknowledge the unearned gift of freedom, to accept the challenge of full citizenship and to shoulder the burdens of defending the nation. The best speech, indeed, of campaign 2010.