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The shifting burden of war

The shifting burden of war
By Geoffrey Wheatcroft The Boston Globe
Monday, April 16, 2007

After he had been sent by President Franklin Roosevelt as his wartime emissary to London, Harry Hopkins became a friend as well as a colleague of Winston Churchill. When Hopkins's son, Stephen, was killed in the landing on Iwo Jima, Churchill expressed his sympathy. Since this was Churchill, there was no mere letter of condolence but a touch of grandeur, a parchment inscribed with the haunting lines from Macbeth that begin, "Your son, my lord, has died a soldier's death . . . "

When I was reminded of this story recently, something struck me, a jarring anachronistic note. Not the friendship of two great men nor the hardships of war; it was the fact that one of the most powerful Americans of his age could lose a 19-year-old son serving as a private in the Marines.

Not so today. Even during the Vietnam War there were several dozen sons of senators and congressmen in the armed forces. Now Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is unique on Capitol Hill in having a son serving in Iraq. That is a most ominous change.

Nothing was more striking in the first half of the past century than the way in which the richer, educated classes bore their share of the burden of war, or more than their share. Nothing is more striking in the past generation than the way this has ceased to be true.

In two world wars the rich fought and died for their country in disproportionate numbers: The casualty rate for junior officers in the British Army from 1914 to 1918 was three times as heavy as for privates. Among prime ministers, H. H. Asquith lost a son, and Andrew Bonar Law lost two. The American toll in that war was less grim, although in all the U.S. elections from 1868 to 1900, eight of nine Republican presidential candidates had served as officers in the Civil War.

A contrast indeed to the Republican Party today. The present administration is notoriously composed of men like Vice President Dick Cheney, who had "other priorities" when he might have been drafted, or President George W. Bush, who served in the National Guard when it was an acknowledged way of avoiding combat. An examination of the neoconservative elite who dreamed up the Iraq war will yield few with any military experience.

And a contrast also to Tony Blair's Labour party. One of the more striking footnotes to British political history in the last century is that every prime minister between 1940 and 1963 had served as an infantry officer in the Great War. That included Churchill, when he left the cabinet to command a battalion in 1916.

There are now more than 100 ministers in the Blair government, but not one has performed any military service or has a child in the armed forces.

"We are fast approaching the day when no one in Congress . . . will have served or have any children serving," Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer write in their recent book "AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service  -  and How It Hurts Our Country." That day has almost arrived at Westminster.

This trend dates back to the 1960s, when the British government ended the draft and when the United States had a draft of sorts, but one which operated in notoriously unfair fashion. "People who figured out how to work the system were exempted," the defense secretary admitted in 1975.

"It is inconceivable that a system designed and operating the way the draft did could have produced a true cross-section of America in the military." That was Donald Rumsfeld during his first stint at the Pentagon. He could scarcely claim that the forces he sent to Iraq during his second stint were much more of a true cross-section.

At New College, my own old Oxford college, the 1914-18 memorial in the chapel bears the names of 228 men, and another 135 were killed in 1939-45. Compare that with another figure: 12 Harvard men died in Vietnam. It is hard to exaggerate how grave are the social and political implications of this.

Many American and British families have been bereaved by war over the past generation. How many of them will be told by their president or prime minister "Your son, my lord, has died a soldier's death"?

<em>Geoffrey Wheatcroft's latest book is "Yo, Blair!" This article first appeared in The Boston Globe.  </em>
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