But I remember all too well what it is like to answer the call to duty. I remember the pain in my heart every time I had to part with my children knowing that I was going to miss irretrievable moments in their growing lives. I recall all too vividly the uncertainty and the foreboding that precedes a venture into treacherous waters.
I also remember that I was proud to be doing it. I felt privileged to be given the honor as well as the responsibility of defending my nation—the greatest nation in the history of the world.
And one more thing I remember is that I never felt that my nation was asking too much of me.
Asking Too Much of Too Few?
But today, I cannot help but wonder if we are not asking too much of those who have assumed the watch in my stead. I see young Marines going off to Iraq for their third tours and wonder how that compares to my one year in Vietnam. I say farewell to my Naval War College students who must forego their education to become "individual augmentees" and wonder who will one day assume the leadership roles for which they were preparing. I see families left behind to endure even more separation and wonder how much we can reasonably expect from these young people, how long can we count on them to continue to serve, continue to sacrifice.
I am in absolute awe of these patriots who answer the call to duty again and again. I understand why they do it, but I do not honestly know how they do it.
The problem is not that we are asking for sacrifice. There is nothing new in that. It is that we are asking for so much sacrifice from a select few—the few who have volunteered—when we ask so little of our other citizens.
I know that I might as well be asking for NFL players to be humble or for corporate CEOs to work for reasonable salaries, but I cannot help but wonder if we should not at least be talking about alternatives, including universal public service. This idea from the past—for all of its problems and its ramifications—may be the only answer to vexing questions no one seems to be able to answer.
The problems are that conscription is not a vote getter; it does not put money in anyone's pocket; it raises complicated gender questions; it asks the average American to step outside their comfort zone and do more than they have become complacently used to doing.
Perhaps this idea is, like me, a relic of the past, a concept that belongs in the dustbin of history. I cannot deny that having served in a military supported by a draft—where so many of my comrades wanted so much to be elsewhere—and having served my final years in an all-volunteer force, I much preferred the latter. There may be reasons why universal service is a bad idea, why it can no longer work. I have little doubt that a 21st-century conscription should be significantly different from the one we left behind in the 1970s.
But there is a calculus here that can no longer be denied: we seem to have found most of the viable volunteers we are going to find. Pay raises and even patriotism have been tapped out. There are ominous rumblings about lowered recruiting standards and increased maximum ages. There are warnings inherent in reports that recruiters feel compelled to resort to desperate measures and are bringing in people who otherwise would not be chosen.
I am particularly troubled to hear tales of young people considering leaving the service or asking for back-to-back sea tours because they know that, even though they will deploy again, it will be scheduled with more certainty and of a lesser duration than if they go ashore and leave themselves open for individual augmentation, where they are likely to be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan on very short notice to do things for which they are barely trained. Make no mistake, these young people are not avoiding these assignments out of fear—they are as ready as any generation to face danger—but it is the quality of life issues threatening their families' well being that makes them seek alternatives. Remember, these are not shirkers; these are the people who have volunteered, while their fellow countrymen have shopped at the mall; they have served, often under arduous circumstances, away from their loved ones, while the rest of us go about our normal lives; and they will gladly serve again if we do not use them up like disposable batteries.
The Hour of Maximum Danger
Too many of our citizens fail to recognize what I perceive as an hour of maximum danger. Too few of our citizens are as committed to the cause of continued freedom as our enemies are committed to ending it. So we are forced to turn to those finite numbers of volunteers and ask them to shoulder more and more of the burden, knowing that reinforcements are not forthcoming. We ask them—those who have stepped forward—to preserve a world for the rest who hold back.
I, for one, am embarrassed. I am ashamed to look this minority in the eye and ask them to do more while the rest of the nation sits by idly.
And much more is at stake than the decimation of our armed forces. I am appalled that the only answers to vital questions seem to be "more of the same" or "cut and run." I am also ashamed to watch the evening news and see yet another tyrant thumbing his nose at the world's only "superpower," knowing that we are virtually powerless to respond because all of our volunteers are too busy. By these actions, we have severely limited our options and have given up the most powerful anti-war weapon of all-deterrence. We have emboldened our adversaries to do what they please with little fear of consequence, and in so doing we may well have permanantly crippled our ability to defend ourselves and our loved ones.
Forgive these rants of an old fossil if that is all they are. But just in case dementia has not replaced reason—on the off-chance that I am right that we are on a course to disaster, to waking up one day and finding that all those wonderful volunteers have been used up, to realizing that we are incapable of deterring and powerless to respond—let us look for alternatives. Let us put politics and selfishness aside and at least openly discuss the idea of asking our citizens to do more, to ask Americans to once again ask themselves, "What can I do for my country?"
Lieutenant Commander Cutler, senior book acquisitions editor for the Naval Institute Press, enlisted in the Navy at 17 and was a gunner's mate second class prior to being commissioned in 1969. A Vietnam veteran, he is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets , published by the Press.