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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
6 Feb 2016
Cracking the Code of Campaign-Speak

"Do you ever get the feeling," asked humorist Robert Orben, "that the only reason we have elections is to … Read More.

30 Jan 2016
Is There Only One True Progressive?

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. In our polarized politics, the … Read More.

23 Jan 2016
The Man Who Drowned Democracy With 'Sewer Money'

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. This week marked the anniversary of … Read More.

Isn't It Time We Americans Got to Know Each Other?


The late Tom Pettit, who covered American politics so well for NBC News from John Kennedy in 1960 to Bill Clinton in 1992, was missed even more during this year's uninspiring presidential campaign. My personal favorite Tom Pettit professional moment was when he was interviewing Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who served in the Cabinets of both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Secretary Butz, an unrelenting critic of the food stamps program then under his department, unloaded on the "greedy" exploiters of food stamps he and his people were chasing down. Pettit asked Butz if he knew anyone who had used food stamps. Butz spoke about how he was no stranger to supermarkets, that he accompanied his wife on the grocery shopping and that he had personally seen people at the checkout counter paying with food stamps.

Pettit pressed Butz: Did the secretary know anyone — personally — who depended upon food stamps to feed her children? After an extended silence, the obviously displeased agriculture secretary answered the question, "No." The only thing that followed was the close: "Tom Pettit, NBC News, Washington."

This anecdote reminds me why the military draft between 1940 and 1973 educated so many of us about what it meant to be an American and, more importantly, tells me why in the second decade of the 21st century the United States desperately needs every 18-year-old American to give two years of national service, military or civilian, to their country.

First, a personal note: At Parris Island, S.C., in Marine Corps boot camp, for the first time in my life I slept in the same quarters with African-Americans and took orders, as a matter of course, from African-Americans. In that boot camp platoon, there were six college graduates, four young men who, given the option by juvenile courts, had chosen to enlist rather than have the judge impose a sentence and one of us, who proved to be both a gentle giant and a superb rifleman, who had never gone beyond the eighth grade.

We were mostly Catholics from the North or Baptists from the South. But we also included four Jewish Marines and even a couple of, to the manor born, Episcopalians. After the longest 13 weeks of our lives, we all came to know that while our ancestors may have come to America at different times and in different ships, now we were all in the same boat — and that each of us was an American.

The draft — when three out of four male college-graduates as well as high-school graduates served — guaranteed that Americans of all classes, all social strata and all areas of the country would shoulder the responsibility of defending their nation. And that in doing so they would rub shoulders with and — while sharing bunks, a weekend pass and, sometimes, even foxholes — get to know, and to depend upon, other Americans very different from themselves.

Which brings us back to a variation of Tom Pettit's great question of Earl Butz: Do you, Mr. Commentator, or do you, Madame Senator, PERSONALLY know anyone whom your arguments or your votes have sent into combat? Have you attended the funeral of anyone whom you PERSONALLY knew who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan?

A "Support Our Troops" decal on your SUV or a flag pin in your lapel does not qualify. The American Establishment — political, economic, academic and journalistic — has next to no personal stake in men and women who risk their life and limbs to defend the United States. Our military is increasingly integrated by race and increasingly segregated by class.

Tragically, most Americans today only know people exactly like themselves. Universal national service would introduce Americans to each other and to what it means to be a citizen.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




8 Comments | Post Comment
Sir;... I trust we know too much of each other... Worst of all, we know ourselves, at least enough in most instances to want to be some one else... But the suggestion does remind me of a story about the new sociable Catholic Church of my youth which gave Latin to the ages, and picked up English...One of the priests told the congregation to turn around and shake the hand of the person behind them, and everyone turned around to find the person behind them turned around as well... So what??? One person's ass is as good as any other, so say hello and take your seat...
The Lines from Pascal are a great analogy for the America we have become, that: Man would fain be great and sees that he is little; would fain be happy and sees he is miserable; would fain be perfect and sees he is full of imperfections; would fain be the object of the love and esteem of men, and sees that his faults merit only aversion and contempt... The embarrassment wherein he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passions imaginable for he conceive a mortal hatred against that truth that blames him and convinces him of his faults.... If we cannot bear to consider each other without contempt it is because we so see ourselves mirrored in each other...We can see the inner ass in all of us, and what it would take to love each other and to know each other without revulsion is the sounding of our moral seas...
Who are we really??? What is our worth, not in dollars or real estate, but in the eyes of God???... What do we mean, and what is our collective meaning, and why do so many of us feel demeaned??? Forget the faining, and forget the faith that we are good, and look for the evidence that we are good in the good we do...And people do have the right to demand that government do good in their names, and not do evil in their names...But we still must seek and find evidence that we are ourselves good, and worthy, and whether loved or not, are worthy of love...
There is a line from one of Bob Dylan's songs which I expect is a translation of Mark, that: Before we can heal the sick we must first forgive them... Is not the one as impossible than the other??? I find it difficult to forgive wanton ignorance because it justifies so much of evil that it also permits, simply by looking away from it...But what can we know, and what can any of us know??? There is not a dimes worth of difference between us, rich or poor, strong or weak, faithful or faithless...We are just people with not greater claim to this place than that we took it from those who were here first...We do not have any of what we have because we were good, but must deserve all that we have by the desire to be better...
I want to be better... I want to say I have learned to be better out of the process of being me, but that even the best of places of being is not much fun -as Olympus, and I am not going to dwell among the common earthling people as an Olympian...
We are all in this life together... We will only find our way well out of it by finding for ourselves a rigorous morality that demands as much good of ourselves as we demand from each other...My circumstances were unique to me, and made me unique, and I would not wish them on anyone...But with the shared experience of being Americans, and being human; there is little we cannot imagine- if our idea is to forgive, to pick up the injured, dust them off, and help them on their way... We can help ourselves, or we can make everyone whole, or we can help ourselves BY making everyone whole....
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Fri Nov 30, 2012 6:41 AM
Nice thought. It's gone forever.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Masako
Fri Nov 30, 2012 8:14 PM
Re: Masako;... Well Ya... The parties have made it their purpose to do as the Romans: Divide et Empera... Then you must ask after a time; What is possible of a divided people??? A divided people cannot defend itself... If that people cannot find unity against the goverment it will never find unity with such a government... Even if a president feels like fighting, and he can lie himself into war with a bare majority, and if in the end the whole cost is laid on the whole people who have no defense from their government or defense against their government, then sooner than later the whole nation will resemble a bar parking lot riot at closing time...

That story about a separate area of heaven for the Baptists because they believe they are the only ones up here is- in its way like those Catholics who believe the American flag should fly around the world, and does fly in heaven... American Flag, Papal Flag, Baptist Flag; all nonsense... Masako, sir; the only thing wrong with Americans is that we are sooo human...People change their forms, and to do so -a person must be transformed in a sense; but it is because people cannot change themselves significantly that they change their forms... Our forms, our government, economy and churches are leading us into class warfare and division, and that is to say: defeat...If defeat is the end of their power over us it should be the beginning of the end of their power over us, today..
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Dec 1, 2012 5:55 AM
First...a disclaimer. There is no family connection between James A. Sweeney and me...that I am aware of anyway.
I wholeheartedly agree with Mark's point. There were many eyeopening experiences to this middle class lad from Minnesota as a result of my military experience in the late 1960's. Two stand out. The first - meeting a young man from the Tennessee hills. An eighteen year old who could barely read and who had never seen a dentist until he was drafted into Uncle Sam's Army. The next - engaging in a discussion with a new acquaintance from Mississippi. We had a long, emotional discussion about race relations, which ended with an understanding, at least on my part, of how complex and difficult it was to change life long held beliefs about racial matters. My view of the world became less simplistic as a result of these, and many other encounters as a somewhat unwilling participant in the U.S. military.
Obtaining a broader view of our fellow Americans is a tremendous benefit to participation in national service. However, it may be of secondary importance to the effect that national service (particularly military service) can have on the foreign policy of our country. A great deal of discussion has occurred over the past year about the "One-percent" of the most wealthy in our society. At the same time, another "one-percent" is, for the most part, ignored. That other "one-percent" are those individuals serving in the military and their families. And it is the small size of that population that is significant. It is that rather small minority of Americans who are directly "in harm's way" due to U.S. military actions. It is that "one-percent" that pays the price in blood for U.S. military actions. It is that "one-percent" that understands the true cost of war. While the other "ninety-nine percent" of citizens are on the sidelines.
Many have asked the question whether U.S. actions in Iraq and/or Afghanistan would have been initiated - or continued for ten years - if all citizens were available for a military draft. A national discussion is warranted.
Comment: #4
Posted by: William Sweeney
Sat Dec 1, 2012 10:20 AM
Re: William Sweeney... All Sweeneys are clones as little different as inches... You write really well for a Sweeney... Most of the Sweeneys I know don't write at all...They sort of point to the pot, and you pass it... That is unkind..And jealous.. They are better at being vocal than myself, and better at expressing themselves conversationally, as I am not...I fear no man, but I tremble before a business call...I miss a lot of information because what I hear make me think when I should listen... My boss would greet me with about ten things he wanted done, and I might catch the first three and check in for the rest..
It drove me into books so I could slow the process down, repeat what seemed difficult and then carry a thought forward... You don't seem at all brain damaged...Never believe that its okay to drop kids on their heads because they are soft anyway... And, I think I find myself in agreement.... What does it hurt for people to serve their society... It is a form of relationship, and we all sacrifice for our relationships... People should have to take a turn being the cops and the sanitary and sewer workers even if under the supervision of professionals...Taxes are one thing, but taxes also would be a good way to reward those who did combat or served under threat of violence in the sense that you could easily help those people with a tax credit...
I volunteered my services to a Vietnam Vet today, if he needs help getting to the Detroit VA hospital for a hip replacement... It is a nicer, newer hospital in a b a d neighborhood... But; I know the way because I spent many months in the construction of it... I don't have to tell the man I protested that war... That too was a public service...But our obligation to these people does not end with the war, even if you disagreed with the war... Nor would I say that they lost that war, when considered historically, it was a victory, though expensive, over communism...
But- here is the thing, Mr. Sweeney, Some people cannot pay taxes, and they have every right to be fed by the commonwealth, and more; but as a general rule, people feel more a part of a relationship they actually work for, and there is much that does not get done in this society because there is not enough money in it to make a profit... And it still needs doing, and when people eat their daily bread they ought to know it is not charity, that they are entitled to it as much from their own labor as from the sacrifice of generations past... You cannot at once deny to people the right to support themselves when they might easily do so, and then damn them for taking their entitlements as charity...The CCC and such in its day produced a generation capable of going on short notice into war... It fed them, gave them exercise and order, taught them to cooperate and work communally.. Our society is producing far more misfits than fits... How anyone thinks such people could ever march into war shouldering a rifle and holding up their britches is a mystery.... It is like somthing Veblin may have said about rich people with canes and white gloves- advertizing the fact with them that no labor would be done by their hands...Get kids into a pair of work pants and work boots, and their transformation has begun...You have to teach people to use their bodies before they will ever appreciate the efficiency of the human brain...
I hope you do not feel like a Napoleon in a nut house making the acquaintance of another Napoleon... The only thing tougher than one Sweeney is two... Being called Sweeney cannot be as bad as being called Balzak... What kid would be able to get through school with that name??? If you didn't learn to make a nose spout blood early on you wouldn't get far in life...So... Stick around and we can tear this place up...
Comment: #5
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Dec 1, 2012 9:38 PM
Mr. Shields, Thank you for such an enlightening article. I read about myself today. I too, went to Parris Island and learned the value of fellow Marines, (not blacks, whites, jews, or catholics), who were watching my back during combat exercises. We learned to work together as a group that needed to survive. My 86 year old father has said for years, "Every graduating male should have to serve their country in the military for at least 2 years." I know this would not be for everyone, but imagine how much better we would all get along. Thanks again.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Bruce White
Mon Dec 3, 2012 8:02 AM
Re: Bruce White;... Perhaps military service is not for everyone, but anyone with any ability what so ever ought to have to serve their communities; and the terrible thing about taxes is that they force the working class to work so much harder, denies him his living with the money that is his, but makes of government a simple transaction where most people buy nothing for something called taxes... It does not matter what the poor pay because they are not getting their money's worth... It does not matter what the rich pay because they are getting far more than their money's worth, in free access to government, the protection of law, police and military...
I would not give a single poor person a nickle in this society while telling them they do not deserve it...They do not deserve the denial of their recreation through the act of creation... Giving people money to sit on their asses is just cheap prison...We are as we do... We are because we do; and it is true that the commonwealth is ours even in private hands, and the government has a right to tax it, and should tax it raw... But whether it is the rich living off the commonwealth or the poor, it is not being transfered whole, and increased- to future generation as is our job...Build, do, beautify, work, fight and earn your keep, because if everyone has to do it, it will bind us together as a common experience and make us feel a part of a society to which we belong, body and soul...
Taxes are an abstraction of a sacrifice that most people do not ever have the chance to make voluntarily, or resist making... The rich have some choice, and compared to the poor, much choice... The poor have no choice, are victims, and cannot even love themselves in that position... It is possible future people will look at this society as an example of how people can screw up their existence beyond belief and go on and on with it until the end...
Comment: #7
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Dec 3, 2012 10:15 AM
I used to work with a Sweeney.He was an aircraft cleaner.His job was to clean airplanes when they arrived and get them ready to depart.He used to tell the flight attendants "my name is Sweeney, that big S little weeney.Only he could pull it off.One of his jobs was to dumb the lavatory tanks. You drive a big truck under the plane,attach a large hose,pull and handle and the lav tank dumped.He would look down at us holding that hose as it dumped and say "yep, these guys are from New York".He claimed he could tell any city by holding that hose.As the plane rolled in he would stand at attention on the ramp wearing Billie Bob teeth.He has since retired.Air travel is now less amusing.
Comment: #8
Sun Dec 23, 2012 9:29 PM
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