Friday February 22, 2013

Telly Halkias

When the youngest Spartan hoplites geared up for war, their commander would ask: "What’s the difference between you and the Spartan king?" The rookies weren’t sure if this was yet another manly test or a genuine inquiry into social status.

I’m reminded of this when I visit Thompson Memorial Chapel at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. I make that trip often to cover stories for regional news outlets, and when Middlebury College sports teams play their Berkshires rivals.

Towering above the pews like birds of prey are the names of Williams’ war dead. They’re organized in ranks and files on the limestone walls, as if in proud, parade ground formation. As a combat memorial - being a veteran I’ve visited many -- it ranks a close second in solemnity only to the Cadet Chapel at West Point.

But the Williams shrine is no less significant, and far more illuminating. Beginning with founder Ephraim Williams, who fell in the French and Indian War, the names are classified by conflict. They cover several centuries, and end in the 1970s with Vietnam.

The conspicuous absence of names following that disaster is unsettling.

Indeed, this void indicates a growing social divide -- that of privileged Americans not strapping on their share of the load once the U.S. turned to all-volunteer forces. Nowhere else is this more striking than inside the Beltway, and at top institutions -- such as Middlebury -- that produce many of today’s leaders.


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The demographics of Congress speak loudly on this issue. In 1974, as conscription ended in the wake of Vietnam, 80 percent of our national legislators were veterans. Today, that number has fallen under 20 percent for the first time in history.

Increasingly, the government’s most influential members, and their children, are products of elite schools. In the past, Williams and Middlebury had a fair number of graduates serve in uniform; today that number has dwindled. So there is credibility in a legislator such as retired Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel, a Korean War veteran, who always pushed to reinstitute conscription.

Rangel’s allies from both parties correctly argue that America’s lower and middle classes assume too many of the risks in periods of prolonged conflict (read: the last decade). Meanwhile, scions of the upper classes don’t, and as a result, lose the ability to shape national security from a user perspective.

In this same vein, the majority of sovereign nations, many which we tout as examples of benevolent societies in matters such as universal health care, require conscription. These countries, however progressive, view uniformed service as a key payback for cradle-to-grave public programs.

Meanwhile, the bulk of our military’s leadership is produced by the larger land-grant state universities and the service academies, and less from the Ivies and their smaller cousins, such as Middlebury and Williams These colleges have their share of leaders in nearly every walk of life -- why cede their influence in the Pentagon?

Our military, which in the Digital Age must handle numerous sophisticated missions in addition to taking control of land, sea, and air, has a highly educated officer corps. In 2009, almost 8 percent of Americans 25 years and older held graduate degrees, while more than one-third of all military officers carried them.

But diversity of thought among this cohort isn’t what it was during the draft era, so it would broaden with an infusion of classic liberal arts graduates from the nation’s top private schools.

Recent moves such as Harvard reviving its storied ROTC program are a step in the right direction. And to be fair, students at Middlebury and Williams can tap into officer commissioning courses at schools such as UVM for the latter, and UMass or Siena College for the former.

But in states with deeply rooted military traditions such as the Green Mountain Boys and the Minutemen, the ethos to overcome logistical inconvenience seems scarce, as is the will to look past prevailing ideologies on elite campuses -- even in the name of societal fairness.

So after staring at that post-Vietnam void of home-grown Spartans on the wall, I always leave Williams College at peace, but head back to Vermont with a reminder of the perils of privilege, and the demands of leadership -- which echo back to the ancient Greek paradigm.

Pointing to the ground, the Spartan commander advised his neophytes: "The difference between you and the king is on the eve of battle. You will sleep in this mud hole here; he will sleep in the one right next to you."

Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. You may e-mail him at: tchalkias@aol.com