' We're two nations now - Paul Greenberg

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May 23rd, 2017

Insight

We're two nations now

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published August 31, 2015

  We're two nations now

LITTLE ROCK -- As the country observed the 70th anniversary of V-J Day, a new generation may have to be reminded what V-J stands for -- Victory Over Japan -- and all it took. The years of personal sacrifices and national unity, the courage and perseverance ... all the costs of war to the living and the dead. Arkansas's governor, Asa Hutchinson, presided over this year's observance of the anniversary at the state Capitol, and looked back at a different time when war united instead of dividing us:

"That is what was unique about World War II," the governor told the crowd. "Our whole nation mobilized behind our men and women in service. You mobilized, you engaged, you did your duty, and the result was freedom. The result was victory."

Granted, the governor may have been indulging in some exaggeration. For the country also had its share of slackers, draft dodgers, black marketeers and shady types who made a killing on their government contracts -- at least till a no-nonsense senator from Missouri named Harry Truman (the Charles Grassley of his time) began investigating and exposing them. There were few uglier names back then than war profiteer. And let's not forget those unreconstructed isolationists who spoke of Roosevelt's War and accused FDR of getting us into it for his own purposes.

But in general the country was indeed united as all pulled together to achieve victory, a word that could be used without qualification or embarrassment in those days before UN police actions and Overseas Contingency Operations took the place of wars with stated goals and consistent policies.

To quote one veteran at the state Capitol on Saturday, Evelyn Usrey, now 90, "We didn't have a lot of things because it was all going to the war effort. We had ration books. The meat was rationed. We didn't have gas money, so we walked everywhere. No one seemed to mind. That's just the way it was. You accepted it."

Evelyn Usrey served first as a supply officer at a Navy shipyard in Maine, then as a Navy medic. Even as Gov. Hutchinson's father was doing his service in the Aleutians.

In those days, it was taken for granted all would serve. Now just some do, for the armed forces are composed only of volunteers. Which means only some have the experience of being both citizens and soldiers in their lifetimes -- an unwholesome division that democracies have avoided since democracy itself was invented in ancient Greece.

The Athenians recognized that in a true democracy all must be citizens and soldiers. Unless all serve, and these days that includes women, a large segment of the country will have no experience with military service, discipline or ideals. Which is why, even though the professionalism of an all-volunteer force is welcome and needs to be preserved, the idea that all of us will serve in uniform at one time or another needs to be revived. So we don't become two nations, one that has known military service and one that never has.

No, the concept of universal military service -- the draft -- may never be popular, understandably enough. But it is necessary for the health of this republic or any other. Or as Pericles put it in his great oration, "the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her ... none of these men allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. ... Therefore, having judged that to be happy means to be free, and to be free means to be brave, do not shy away from the risks of war."

The generation that fought and won the Second World War would have understood what Pericles meant. Do we now?

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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