It's just a week since the election of Barack Obama, and we've already seen a telling new approach to one of America's most venerable holidays, Veterans Day.
President Bush downplayed the cost of war. He appeared frequently with able-bodied heroes he was decorating for bravery, but to my knowledge never attended even one of the thousands of funerals for those Americans killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In stark contrast to this sweep-it-under-the-rug approach favored by the outgoing administration, the president-elect yesterday laid a simple wreath at Chicago's Soldier Field to honor our nation's military veterans. He was accompanied by Illinois veterans affairs director Tammy Duckworth, a decorated Iraq War veteran and Army major who lost both her legs when the helicopter she piloted was shot down by Iraqi insurgents.
Without making a big deal of it, Obama thus acknowledged the cost of war in a way that the current administration -- which cut taxes and borrowed endlessly to finance its largely misbegotten strategies -- has never dared.
War has its costs, and military service has its costs, as I know from my own unremarkable Navy stint. It is only when you acknowledge the cost that you can recognize the value.
My father was a war hero. He was wounded three times in action, the last time taking shrapnel to the brain. Though he recovered, his wound deeply colored the rest of his life, making him moody and difficult, sometimes at a moment's notice.
And his wounds occurred in an era before technology allowed heroic savings of the still more grievously wounded. The number of those killed in action in Iraq is only -- only, a word to be used advisedly -- something over 4000 souls. But more than 30,000 have been wounded, many of them very grievously. In previous wars, many of them would have died. But the gift of their lives comes at a cost which will color the lives of every one of them, and their families, for decades to come.
This is the human cost of war, a cost which President Bush and Vice President Cheney -- neither of whom served in the military -- have sought, with the help of a complacent media, to keep out of the public spotlight. It's striking how most of America's most vehement war hawks were conveniently unavailable for military service in their younger years.
What is the meaning of Veterans Day in the Age of Obama? More to the point, what is the meaning of Veterans Day in the an age in which America is embroiled in two wars -- one a war of retribution, the other a war of faulty strategy -- in a world beset by Islamic jihadism and marked by an emerging multi-polarity?Celebrating military service.
Let's start with a great irony. Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day, established to mark the end of World War I. Which, as you know, was "the war to end all wars." It didn't work out that way.
Humanity is, in many respects, defined by the differences between us. That won't be changing anytime soon. We do not live in a world in which pacifism is a winning approach.
We do live in a world in which military service is a necessity, and in which military force -- or at least its highly credible threat, explicit or implicit -- is necessary to pursue America's strategic ends.
Which makes the determination of those strategic ends literally a matter of life and death.
John McCain resurfaced, following his sweeping defeat at the hands of Obama, last night on The Tonight Show. He is certainly America's most famous Vietnam War hero. And his defeat means that Vietnam will be the only major war which did not produce a president of the United States. John Kerry and Al Gore, both Vietnam vets, lost their respective races in 2004 and 2000. (Though Gore, of course, actually won, which is a whole other matter.)
For all his evident heroism, McCain seemed out of sync to me throughout most of this campaign, even when discussing national security issues, the raison d'etre of his presidential candidacy.
He was especially out of sync when it came to emerging veterans issues.
Strangely, McCain opposed the New GI Bill authored by Virginia Senator Jim Webb, the former US Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan who was the most highly decorated Marine combat officer of the Vietnam War.
I remember last May, spending a day around McCain, and finding him in a fit of pique over Obama's criticisms of him for McCain's opposition to the Webb bill. Obama, he said, wasn't even qualified to venture an opinion on this or any other military-related issue.
But for all his evident anger, which we later saw manifested in the general election campaign, McCain could not bring himself to mention Webb, who was, after all, the actual author of the bill he opposed, and an old friend of his. McCain contributed a blurb to Webb's must-read book on the Scots-Irish tradition in America, "Born Fighting," calling Webb "a legendary fighting man."
McCain wanted to force service members to stay in service longer before getting new benefits. His rationale? That that would build the non-commissioned officer cadre necessary for any effective military. Webb saw things very differently, reasoning that the folks putting themselves at risk whenever they walked down a street in Iraq or Afghanistan need to know that they will be well-rewarded for that risk.
Although both McCain and Webb are Annapolis graduates, their paths after the Naval Academy took them in very different directions.
Webb was a a Marine, a ground pounder. McCain was a naval aviator, an airedale. In his Vietnam War, Webb was at risk, one way or the other, most every hour of the day. McCain had periods of intense risk, but at the end of the mission, he flew back to great food, Filipino stewards, and a warm bed on his aircraft carrier. Until the time he did not, of course.
These experiences led to very different perspectives.
As Webb put it last year on Veterans Day, as he began what turned out to be the overwhelmingly successful push for his bill, despite the opposition of McCain, Bush, and Cheney: On this Veteran's Day, we should remember that every day, our military is fighting across the world, and we owe those soldiers a debt, regardless of the political debates over the war(s) we fight. It is with pride that our party supports our troops as they return home as veterans, proposing and supporting legislation to fully fund the Veterans Administration, offer services at the Federal and State level upon their return home, and making sure their families are cared for.Barack Obama showed an easy rapport with American troops on his trip to the Middle East.
Barack Obama has never worn the uniform. Had he done so, his path to the White House would have been easier. But he is part of a class and a generation that increasingly never experiences the military.
Yet he has more rapport with the most common experience of the American veteran -- and understanding of the cost that taking military action can ring up, in the lives of individuals, families, and a nation -- than the Republicans who are now in the process of relinquishing power to him and his allies.
And that is a very good thing.