Essay: Military Families

April 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

FRANK SCHAEFFER: The military records of the presidential candidates are hot topics. But as the father of a member of our military, I’m less interested in the candidate’s past service than in asking “Where are their children?”

From March through December of 2003, my son, a corporal in the United States Marine corps, was facing roadside bombs and random bullets in Afghanistan. I was proud of John’s service, and terrified. What our political leaders said about “supporting our troops” didn’t comfort me. In one crucial respect, they and I had nothing in common. Almost none of their children were in harm’s way.

SPOKESMAN: Yesterday, December 7, 1941…

FRANK SCHAEFFER: At one time, many of our leaders were also military parents. Jon Meacham notes in his recent book, “Franklin and Winston,” that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote,” I think my husband would have been very much upset if the boys had not wanted to go into the war immediately, but he did not have to worry very much because they either were already in before the war began, or they went in immediately.”

Roosevelt’s most influential advisor, Harry Hopkins, also had children who volunteered. His youngest son, Stephen, was killed in the Pacific. Many members of Congress had sons or daughters serving. Some were wounded, and others killed. A lot has changed since our political elites were encouraging, even expected, their children to volunteer.

According to an article by Tom Ford in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune wherein he cited two experts on trends in military service, only 30 percent of the 535 members of Congress have a military background. This number is down from 1969 when more than two-thirds had served. And only six representatives and one senator are known to have children serving.

I never served in the military, and I was dismayed when my son volunteered. And I don’t mean to single out individuals, but several examples illustrate a serious dilemma: When it comes to service, our ruling class no longer puts its money where its mouth is.

President Bush refers to the U.S. military as our finest young men and women; his daughters did not volunteer. As first lady, Sen. Hillary Clinton, often said that she looked to Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt as role models. But there is no evidence Senator Clinton is “very much upset” by the fact that her service-age daughter did not volunteer to fight in the war that Senator Clinton voted for and Senator Kerry’s children did not volunteer. Yet the fact that he did not inspire his children to serve is not seen as a disqualification for his seeking the office of commander and, in these days of the all-volunteer military, recruiter-in-chief.

Leaders on the right talk about the need to project American power. Where is their practical patriotism? Where are their children? Leaders on the left talk about fairness to working people. Where is their practical solidarity with the working people defending them? Where are their children?

In Pericles’ funeral oration, he says, “For a man’s counsel cannot have equal weight or worth when he alone has no children to risk in the general danger.” To me, this summarizes a serious moral problem: the unfairness of being led by a class that only sends the sons and daughters of others to defend us.

Eleanor wrote of her wartime farewell to her sons, “I imagine every mother felt as I did when I said good-bye. Life had to go on, and you had to do what was required of you, but something inside of you died.” I wish we were still led by women and men who could honestly identify with “every mother” and father who has experienced the heart-stopping mix of pride and sorrow attending a farewell to a son or daughter who has volunteered to defend us. If we were, this country would be fairer. If we were, our leaders’ words about war and peace would have weight.