As I listened to a profile of General David H. Petraeus on NPR today, I was reminded again of how much I respect the men and women who were the military uniform of our country. I supposed this goes back to 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower ran for president on the Republican ticket and my parents, lifelong Democrats, voted for him. They felt that Eisenhower, as the supreme military commander in Europe during WW II, was a hero, a man of integrity who had proven himself in the service of his country.
I have a great of respect for men like Colin Powell, Wes Clark, John McCain, Jimmy Carter, John Kennedy, and others who have held command and then continued to serve their country in other ways. I respect and honor the men and women who serve in our armed forces today. They have various motivations for their decisions to become part of the military, but they all place their lives on the line on behalf of other Americans. They endure hardship so that the rest of us can avoid it.
I have worn the uniform, and it was by choice not chance. Making that choice resulted in a tour of duty in Vietnam, a military exercise that continues to divide and trouble our nation. I served not because I thought that Vietnam was a "just war" (that's a subject for another time), but because I had taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. I followed through on my commitment, even if it was unpleasant and inconvenient. Others made greater sacrifices in that war even to the point of giving their lives. I knew some of them.
Although we live in a democracy (or more technically a "democratic republic"), we must remember that the military is not a democracy. I think we can make a case that for many it is a meritocracy and has offered opportunities that they would not have had otherwise. Military leaders are not democratically elected with but one exception--the President, the commander-in-chief. The president is the commander of all armed forces. In our system of government, the military is ultimately under civilian control. We don't elect our generals, but we do elect our President, who then selects civilians to serve as Secretary of Defense and of each military service. The generals recommend and then carry out the orders given to them. I think I would prefer that our President be someone who has worn the uniform and, even more to the point, one who has served in a real war. I think such a person would be less inclined to commit young men and women to battle when diplomacy and economic coercion might product better results. A person who has served or who has a family member in the military has more credibility for me when it comes to making decisions about military action.
A former Secretary of State is reported to have said, "What's the use of having all of this military power if we don't use it?" The point is that we have it so that we don't have to use it except as a last resort.
May God bless the Americans who wear the uniform and may God guide those who make decisions about their future.