The late William Safire, a certified wordsmith who had been a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon before becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, concluded, after reading 56 of them, that there had been only four great presidential inaugural addresses: Abraham Lincoln's first and second, Franklin Roosevelt's first, and John F. Kennedy's only.
As a low-ranking private first class in the United States Marine Corps then, I listened to the Kennedy speech and still remember being moved by his summons to the responsibilities of citizenship: "So, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Sensitive to his narrow popular-vote victory over Nixon just two months earlier, Kennedy was careful to avoid any partisan domestic issues and instead spoke of our collective commitment to the survival of our nation's security and liberty, for which he pledged, "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe."
Like 3 in 4 male Americans of my generation — and because of a military draft that, if you could see lightning and hear thunder, took you — I served in the United States military. "Back then," as Karl Marlantes, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam and the author of "Matterhorn," writes, "it was called 'the service.' Today, we call it 'the military.'" Then, it was a broadly accepted obligation of citizenship; today it's an optional vocation answered by less than 1 percent of Americans. When Ronald Reagan ran for president, 412 of the 535 members of Congress had served in the military. In the 115th Congress today, less than 1 in 5 have worn the uniform.
Then, because of the draft, almost every American family had an intensely personal interest in U.S. foreign policy. War was not a policy debate. War was not a spectator sport. Families in every American neighborhood knew well that war could — and did — kill people whom you knew and even loved and made neighbors into widows and orphans.
What made the draft work so well from before Pearl Harbor up until Vietnam was — as the late Northwestern University professor (and U.S. Army draftee) Charlie Moskos, a pre-eminent scholar of the military, explained — that "America was drafting from the top of the social ladder." President Franklin Roosevelt had four sons, all of whom served in combat. Elliott Roosevelt enlisted in the Army Air Corps and flew 300 combat missions; Jimmy earned both the Navy Cross and the Silver Star as a combat Marine in the Pacific; John, a Navy lieutenant, was awarded the Bronze Star; and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Franklin Jr., for bravery under fire, won the Silver Star.
Moskos argued: "The answer to the question of what are vital national interests is found not so much in the cause itself. ... Only when the privileged classes perform military service, only when elite youth are on the firing line does the country define the cause as worth young people's blood and do war losses become acceptable."
The U.S. war in Iraq, which began 14 years ago, was the first war in 156 years that the U.S. had entered without a military draft to fight it and without tax increases (there was actually instead a selfish tax cut) to pay for it. A new president reminding all of us that war really does demand equality of sacrifice — now that could be an inaugural address worth listening to.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.