On Oct. 15, 2010, a father who knew from painful personal sacrifice the terror and the loss of combat, wrote to his son, who was at that moment leading a Marine platoon enduring almost relentless combat: “I know you guys have taken some licks in the last few days. ... Robert you will likely lose one or more of your precious Marines if you haven’t already. Do not let the men mope or dwell on the loss. ... Do not let them ever enjoy the killing or hate their enemy. ... Combat is so inhumane; you must help your men maintain their humanity as well as their sense of perspective and proportion.’’
Just over three weeks later, at 6 a.m., that same father would answer the doorbell at his home at the Washington Navy Yard. There, in Marine Corps dress blues, stood the father’s friend Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who was there to tell Gen. John Kelly, who is currently White House chief of staff, that his 29-year-old son, Lt. Robert Kelly, had, after stepping on a land mine, been killed in southern Afghanistan. John Kelly — who, as a Marine officer, had himself written hundreds of letters of condolence to families after the deaths of their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers — now had to wake Robert’s sleeping mother to tell her the awful news.
The year that John Kelly’s current boss, Donald Trump, graduated from the New York Military Academy and qualified for the draft, the overwhelming majority of young American men served in the U.S. military. In fact, largely because of a sizable standing army then (twice as large as today’s) and a relatively small draft-age population (because of low birthrates during the Depression and World War II), three in four high school graduates and nearly three-fourths of college graduates served in the U.S. military. Exemptions from service were given only to approximately one in five men — those with a real medical disability — which meant that service in the military became effectively a universal experience for healthy American men.
One in three college graduates who served did so not as officers but in the enlisted ranks as privates or corporals. The inevitable mixing of Americans from different social classes, regions, religions and races meant that the obligation to defend the nation included the most privileged from the most powerful families. This generation remembered that all four of President Franklin Roosevelt’s sons had served in combat and that President John F. Kennedy, who had almost died himself as a Navy officer in the Pacific, had suffered the loss of his brother Joe in Europe.
Vietnam was different. The college-educated sons, particularly those born to affluence and influence, found a friendly family physician who discovered a previously undetected bone spur (Donald Trump) or a rare skin disorder (Rush Limbaugh), or else they stayed in college or graduate school (Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton) or otherwise dodged the draft. Those who schemed to avoid service — e.g., Newt Gingrich, Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz — often became the most bellicose cheerleaders for sending other Americans into battle.
Candidate Trump defended his proposal of targeting, in violation of international law, the families of Islamic State terrorists because “we have to be much tougher (and) stronger than we have been.’’ As president, he boasts that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded’’ — ready, if not eager, to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen.’’ Proving that “war hath no fury like a noncombatant,’’ Trump, brimming with 2 o’clock courage, talks tough when no man in his family has ever volunteered to be in harm’s way.
Let us be grateful that President Trump is surrounded by chief of staff Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dunford, who all understand painfully and personally that war is never a spectator sport.
— Mark Shields is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.