Daddy, what did you do during the war?
Military service was so universal during World War 2 that any child growing up in the 1950s could expect an answer. Yet it was always a little like asking "daddy, how much money did you make?" because the response served as a reliable indicator of status in a societies whose networks were largely a continuation of bonds forged during the global conflict. It made a difference whether one had been a Jedburgh or a supply clerk in Pittsburgh. Joseph Kennedy understood that no one who stood apart from the universal experience of a generation cope hope to succeed in politics and urged his sons into the service.
The question will be asked again by children ten years hence, this time in the context of the War on Terror. Unlike the Vietnam War, it is the first since World War 2 that has swept up an entire generation. From lower Manhattan to the smallest town in America there is hardly anyone that does not have or know someone personally touched by the war. But it has swept them up differentially. The anti-war legacy which effectively shut the ROTC out of Ivy League campuses will mean that for the first time since the Civil War the best answer that many university graduates will be able to give is "I marched with International Answer" or "I blogged while at Oxford". And while neither answer is dishonorable, it will be an admission of exclusion from a central experience in American life.
If the War on Terror goes on long enough, it will mean that different American socio-economic classes will have grown up in two worlds. Really different worlds. One National Guardsman about to deploy knows the war is the haps.
I'm no better than anyone else. I chose to enlist. I chose to re-enlist. Hell, I volunteered to go to Iraq. Why would I do such a thing? I have a few answers of varying honesty. Mostly I want to expand my human experience and this is an easy way to experience some of the most extreme limits of mortality. I want to contribute to something bigger and more meaningful than myself. I want to give back to my country. I want to physically contribute something positive to solving a problem rather than acting like I can solve all the world's problems from my couch. I love the guys I work with and I love the comraderie. I want money for school. I want to kill someone just so people will shut up and stop asking me if I have.
And unlike World War 2, the Harvard grads won't be there. How will it be when a Rhodes scholar walks into a room 10 years from now and meets a person his own age who speaks fluent Arabic and has a pocketful of pictures of life and times in Central Asia? It will be dangerous.