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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
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The One Memorable Speech of the 2010 Campaign


As we, mercifully, approach the end of this depressing campaign season that has done about as much for serious public debate as the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen, a campaign year when to call one's opponent an "incumbent " was grounds for libel, when we've been reminded again that apparently the only president who resisted pinning all his problems on the previous administration was George Washington, we should take note of the one memorable speech of this relentlessly dismal political year.

This speech was not given by any elected officeholder or candidate. It was that rare speech that did not seek to comfort the comfortable or pander by promising listeners an ouchless, painless future of endless tax cuts and balanced budgets. Nor did this speech blame all the nation's and the listeners' pains and trouble on an unpopular "them." This speaker actually dared to do what neither President George W. Bush nor President Barack Obama has ever done since the U.S. invasion of Iraq: He explicitly urged the young men and women at an elite American university to join the U.S. military.

These were the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Duke University students, late last month: "So I would encourage you and all young Americans, especially those at the most selective universities who may not have considered the military, to do so. To go outside your comfort zone and take a risk in every sense of the word. To expand what you were capable of doing when it comes to leadership, responsibility, agility, selflessness and, above all, courage."

Gates offered more than a call to arms. He spoke directly of an avoided undemocratic reality — that most Americans have grown detached from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the great civilian majority has come to view military service as "something for other people to do."

Those "other people," as Gates reminded us, come overwhelmingly from a "tiny sliver of America" concentrated in the South and the Rocky Mountain West, in rural areas and small towns.

There is the distinct possibility that eventually the U.S. military and its leaders will be estranged — culturally and geographically — from the civilian population it is defending.

As of this writing, there are more than 310,534,000 of us living in the United States, and we are defended by roughly 2.4 million of our fellow citizens now on active military duty. This means that all the fighting, sacrificing and dying is being done by considerably less than 1 percent of all Americans and their loved ones.

While emphatically praising the professionalism and the competence of those now serving, Gates spoke of the service members' repeated deployments and the extended separations from their families, as well as the unforgiving pressure and emotional scars. Suicides have increased in every branch of the U.S. military, and the divorce rate has almost doubled.

Every politician in shoe leather pays predictable, lip-service praise to those serving in uniform. But Gates told his audience, in and outside the hall, that while most Americans do respect and honor those who have volunteered to serve, the U.S. wars and enormous sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan are "a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally." Absolutely and tragically true.

Nobody understood this as well as the late military scholar and ex-GI, Charles Moskos, who told me that the U.S. "national interest is determined not so much by the cause, itself, but instead by who is willing to die for that cause."

Moskos continued: "Only when the privileged do military service, only when the elite youth are under fire does the nation define the cause as worth the blood of our young people." He added that, in both World Wars, the British nobility had higher casualty rates than did the British working class.

Bob Gates, unlike either of the commander in chiefs under whom he has served, has challenged the nation's gifted and advantaged youth to acknowledge the unearned gift of freedom, to accept the challenge of full citizenship and to shoulder the burdens of defending the nation. The best speech, indeed, of campaign 2010.

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




5 Comments | Post Comment
Yes, it is a very few who defend us, and you did not point out that 85% of the soldiers in the military are white citizens. In Viet Nam, it was 90% (per the military's own figures). So it is predominantly the white families giving the lives of their sons and husbands, and sacrificing income and comfort while they serve. So while the white citizen is not allowed to be proud to be white, proud of our Eurofolk heritage, we are the ones who wrote the constitution giving all the other peoples civil rights, and we are still predominantly the ones fighting and dying to preserve that gift to the world. The next highest category of those who serve disproportionally to their numbers is the Native American. While our sons die, new immigrants are here being paid to have kids on welfare! Every immigrant of military age should be required TO SERVE THE COUNTRY MILITARILY OR CIVILLY as a public servant for a year before being granted citizenship. If they are not willing to lay down a life for this country, (or a year of service) why should our sons and daughters be required to do so for them? And 85% white is not good enough! Now Gates wants our promising doctors and professionals to die too? We are giving enough as a group...let him recruit in New York and the ghettos and the immigrants neighborhoods! Freedom is everybody's responsibility, not mostly the white folk!
Comment: #1
Posted by: beverly
Fri Oct 22, 2010 8:46 AM
Sorry, Beverly. As does everyone in America with one exception and one twist, you have an immigrant heritage and an American heritage. Period. For white Americans, your immigrant / cultural heritage is from somewhere in Europe. Everyone else can look to their immigration records for their country of origin to trace their cultural heritage. The one exception being Native Americans who are not immigrants; their ancestors instead migrated here before recorded history. The one twist relates to the descendants of black slaves. As property and not immigrants, the national origins of slaves were lost during the slave trade which is why their descendants' "hyphenated" American label lists a continent instead of a country. The shorthand that was given to African Americans to describe their cultural heritage was "black." Being a Black American indicates that you are a descendant of slaves ... or that others confuse you for being a descendant of slaves, despite the fact that you're an immigrant from South Africa, Brazil, Jamaica, Haiti, etc., because you have obvious physical features found in Africa. EVERYONE in America encourages you to celebrate your immigrant heritage whether it be English, Irish, German, Dutch, Swiss, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Czech, Russian, etc. as well as our ONE mutual AMERICAN heritage that also includes Native, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, Pakistani, Nepali, Colombian, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Philippino, and the like. Seeking to single out a "white" heritage based solely on your skin color is grounded in this country's long, sad and terrible history of white supremacy and racism. And as a simple reminder, people of color, women, and gays have been systematically excluded from active military service in this country until the 1950s. Since then, there has been an uphill climb to achieve equality in the military that mirrors the struggles in the larger society. And as in the larger society, when we create hurdles and limit opportunities based on the color of people's skin, gender, or sexual orientation, we get suboptimal results ... and we all lose ... as we now see within our volunteer military. The answers? I see two. First, stop relying on war to solve our problems. As one of the leaders in the world, the United States has the insight and resources to prevent wars -- yes, we do! Second, until we accept our great responsibility to wage peace and the stewardship that goes along with our great gifts, we can start DRAFTING men and women for military service to fight the wars we refuse to avoid. It isn't news that our volunteer military comes largely from the poor and disenfranchised within our nation. That's a fact and practice well documented throughout global history. The Draft was instituted to more fairly distribute the burden of military service. I don't want to rely on war ... but I am sick to death of abusing a few to keep the many free. I would rather share in the sacrifices necessary with a Draft than to continue this travesty, which by the way, I suspect is contributing to and extending the length of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Were there a Draft, these wars would end a lot sooner. In the meantime, I thank each and every soldier, regardless of gender, race, or orientation, for their service and their families for their sacrifices. I regret that as a nation, we fail you so often and so lightly. My prayers are with you and with the rest of us who are working to do our part at home (including driving fuel-efficient cars).
Comment: #2
Posted by: Debora Beverly
Sat Oct 23, 2010 7:44 AM
You know, I hate it when people misconstrue the facts, distort them to fit their weak premise, or just get them plain wrong. It is even more appalling to me when such nonsense is based on thinly veiled racism. For your future education, Beverly, the military has only been about 65% white (active duty) since 2007 (Source: the Heritage Foundation). African Americans had, up unitil 9-11 or so, seen their numbers decline due to a better economy giving them more options than military service (this is likely true across the board); as of today their numbers are still roughly porportionate to their overall population. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines (and Coasties, too) of color have served this nation, from Crispus Attucks through Washington's Continental Army, in Jim Crow and today, from the beginning. And they did so while their freedoms were unduly and unfairly curtailed. You do all of us (and yes, I am a third-generation black soldier--and damn proud to be one--whose lineage dates from at least the Korean war) a great disservice when you play the race card as you have. Did you really think that Secretary Gates was talking only to privileged WHITES? You don't think that black senior officers also lamented the apprehensions of black parents (of all socioeconomic backgrounds) when their kids consider military service? Really? If you really cared about the freedoms you have, you'd be more grateful for the people who do pledge to serve, rather than taking racial headcounts of who's not.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Therren Dunham
Mon Oct 25, 2010 11:17 AM
I am not sure how this took a racial turn, but it does not address the message or the column. The quote from Moskos in the next to the last paragraph makes one of, if not the, most important points, and that is virtually all male Americans were eligible for the draft. I had a deferment while an undergraduate in college (1959 - 63) so had the choice of waiting to get drafted after graduation or to sign up prior to graduation in the service of my choosing, which I did. Boot camp was an "interesting" experience, to say the least. The discipline it imposed was amazing, but more than that it was a leveler. All races and ethnic groups were treated equally. When one member of the squad screwed up the entire squad was punished. So we learned early on to help each other and the importance of teamwork. Discipline and teamwork are in short supply these days. After I completed my active duty I stayed in
the Reserve and retired some 30 years later. All in all, a great experience. Bob Gates was and is right. Too bad so few get the message.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Rick Castberg
Tue Oct 26, 2010 1:04 PM
Maybe the reason so few people are signing up for military service is the fact that they would not be defending this country but invading and occupying other countrys. If we gave a damn about our service women and men, we would have them defend this country and not try to make them believe that just because they are in the military, they are defending their homeland. They are not and very few people wish to join them. Our government relies mostly upon those people who have nowhere to turn for sustenance. And then send them for up to 12 tours fighting our country's wars of aggression.

Notice how most of our leaders in the Senate and House avoid military service and yet pay themselves handsomely to serve in Congress?
Comment: #5
Posted by: Don Stivers
Tue Oct 26, 2010 4:38 PM
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