Three aging U.S. veterans of the war in Vietnam, each of whom still bears the scars of battle, took their seats on the stage of Washington’s Kennedy Center on a cool September evening. They were there to discuss Ken Burns’ historic 18-hour PBS project, “The Vietnam War,’’ which will deservedly earn the nation’s attention. The three — John Kerry, a former presidential nominee, U.S. senator and secretary of state; Chuck Hagel, a former secretary of defense and U.S. senator; and John McCain, a former presidential nominee and current U.S. senator — received a sustained standing ovation from an unimpressionable Washington crowd.
Kerry credited the Burns film for teaching that “we should never confuse the warriors with the war’’ and that it can “take a long time for a family to get to a place where they can say, ‘My brother, my son did not die in vain. They served our country. They are patriots.’’’ But it was McCain who made this comfortable room more than a little uncomfortable by reminding his fellow citizens of an abandoned American value: the need for shared sacrifice.
Immediately, I was reminded of the wisdom of Army Col. Steve Siegfried’s words to military journalist George Wilson: “Armies don’t fight wars. Countries fight wars. I hope to hell we learned that in Vietnam. (Tragically, we did not.) ... A country fights a war. If it doesn’t, then we shouldn’t send an army.’’
McCain, the son and the grandson of Navy admirals and himself a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, confronted the class issue of the Vietnam War: “There was a division in America because we had a draft and those who were drafted were lower-income Americans who didn’t have a college education and couldn’t get a deferment. ... That’s not right. If we are going to fight a war, we should be able to ask everybody to fight it.’’
The audience at the Kennedy Center warmly applauded McCain’s call that war demands equality of sacrifice. But 42 years after the fall of Saigon and 14 years since we went to war against a country that did not threaten the United States — that had never attacked the United States and did not have then and had never had weapons of mass destruction — our elected leaders have still asked us to pay no price, to bear no burden. Just slap a “Support Our Troops’’ sticker on the SUV and mumble an empty “thank you for your service’’ to the limping stranger in uniform at the airport.
Where is our patriotism, yours and mine, to demand that our leadership impose upon us taxes to pay for the wars waged in our name so that we do not selfishly shift all the burden for paying the trillions in costs to our children and grandchildren? Does anyone seriously doubt that if this nation today had a military draft — with no college or occupational deferments — that commanded into service the sons and daughters of CEOs, of senators, of talk show patriots and of the president of the United States, university campuses and the influential among the privileged elite would be loudly protesting sending any more Americans into wars with no end?
Thank you, John McCain, for reminding us, by the courageous example of your principled leadership, of the American value that war truly does demand equality of sacrifice.
— Mark Shields is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.