The Inequity of Wartime Sacrifice Military families who send members to serve Iraq are bearing a disproportionate share of the cost of the war, since most Americans are untouched by it, Ron Elving says in the latest Watching Washington column.
NPR logo The Inequity of Wartime Sacrifice

The Inequity of Wartime Sacrifice

Tammy Pruett, whose four sons are deployed in Iraq, acknowledges the audience's applause after being introduced during a speech by President Bush in Nampa, Idaho, Aug. 24, 2005. White House photo hide caption

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White House photo

Tammy Pruett, whose four sons are deployed in Iraq, acknowledges the audience's applause after being introduced during a speech by President Bush in Nampa, Idaho, Aug. 24, 2005.

White House photo

She stood up at a rally in Nampa, Idaho, last week and gave President Bush just the symbol he needed to dramatize support for the war in Iraq. Tammy Pruett, who's seen her husband and five sons go to Iraq, was introduced and thanked by a grateful president.

But Pruett also symbolizes something else that should give the president pause. She represents the inequity of sacrifice among Americans in this time of war.

The Pruett story appealed to Mr. Bush in part for its contrast with Cindy Sheehan, the mother who's been keeping a vigil outside his Texas ranch. By asking the president to tell her personally why the United States was in Iraq and why her son had to die, Sheehan has become media celebrity and a rallying point for Americans disillusioned with the war.

So no one could miss the significance of the resolute Pruett, who told TV reporters she could not think of a better way for one of her sons to die than fighting for what he believed in. "America lives in freedom because of families like the Pruetts," Bush declared at the Idaho rally, and the crowd cheered.

Americans may question whether the war in Iraq is keeping them free. But Mr. Bush is certainly right when he says the war would not be possible without "families like the Pruetts." While few have sent quite so many, families sending more than one member to Iraq are anything but rare.

Even those that send one are shouldering an unequal share of the cost of this war. Because the vast majority of American families remain untouched.

In fact, the peculiar nature of this war has caused its burden to be borne by a minuscule percentage of the population -- not only in contrast to World War II but also by the standards of the Korean and Vietnam wars. In those years, not so long ago, military service touched far more of society because of the draft. Even those who volunteered for the Navy, Air Force or Marines often did so at least in part to avoid being drafted into the Army.

There are other aspects of this war that contribute to the inequity. By financing the war through deficit spending rather than the traditional mix of debt and wartime taxes, the Bush administration has shifted the fiscal cost from present day taxpayers to future taxpayers. Moreover, current Pentagon policies that value high tech and a small fighting force over numerical troop strength tend to narrow the base of human commitment.

Still, the main equity issue comes with active service. Today we rely on true volunteers to fill all the branches. Elected officeholders have chosen this course, and professional military officers greatly prefer to lead "people who want to be here." But the downside is that the burden falls on the few. And that sacrifice can be great, even for those who come home alive and whole.

So the chasm is greater and growing between those who fulfill their "service obligation" (as it once was called) and those who never even consider it.

This inequity finds its epitome in the high re-enlistment rates among regular Army and Marine troops in Iraq. Having done their part, these men and women volunteer anew and do their part a second and even a third time. The Pentagon has to be not only proud of this cohort but grateful as well, because fresh recruits for Iraq are getting harder to find. Once again, the idea of sacrifice shared by all has given way to super-sacrifice by the few.

As an individual act, battlefield re-enlistment may be admirable. But in terms of public policy, these personal sacrifices exacerbate the inequity. And that eventually presents itself as a problem in a democracy.

To be sure, the cost of war can never be perfectly shared or even fairly distributed. Fate takes a hand, and no one can know how high his or her own cost will be. But striving to counter these natural inequities is a demand of the democratic ideal.

A physical threat to the welfare and survival of a nation should be a matter of great concern to all. It should inspire sacrifice from as much of the nation as possible.

If that degree of concern is not so broadly shared, then perhaps the nation is not what it thinks it is. Or else the threat is not really what our leaders said it was when they took our nation to war.

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