No, soldiers aren’t the only ones who serve

*Note: This letter to the editor was published in the Baltimore Sun print edition on June 17, 2017. It can also be found online here.

Last week, U.S. Naval Academy professor Bruce Fleming described the circumstantial pomp of this year’s graduation day. He “usually love[s] it.”

This year was different. It “wasn’t fun,” because Fleming felt the event’s speeches “portrayed a vision of the Navy as a self-serving, closed entity.” He excoriated the speakers and concluded, “It’s not good for the military to believe itself better than the civilians it defends.” (“Naval Academy graduates no better than the civilians they defend,” June 5.)

Admittedly, as an Army major and West Point graduate, my initial reaction brought out the worst, particularly having just written my own painful reflection on fallen friends this past Memorial Day. How could someone attack the military like that?

My instinctual reaction was wrong. And Mr. Fleming’s essay was (mostly) right. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote a few years ago, “We can’t allow a sense of separation to grow between [the military and the rest of society].” Both General Dempsey and Mr. Fleming point out that those in uniform aren’t the only ones in America who serve or sacrifice.

My experience confirms this. Mom was a special education teacher in a poorer part of town and struggled for years to give a chance to otherwise forgotten kids. Dad was among the first to join the Transportation Security Agency after 9/11. So growing up, I saw civilians serving and sacrificing, even when it was hard.

Mr. Fleming was correct to aim his pen at the myopic narcissism of the vocal few who see the military as having a complete monopoly on societal service, a sentiment best captured by the soldier silhouette-shaped bumper sticker I pass every day on my military base: “Freedom Isn’t Free — I Paid For It.”

This claim is as flimsy as the sticker it’s printed on, and it ignores those who also contribute to the fullness of freedom: journalists who free the truth, doctors who free us of disease, lawyers who free the innocent, and so many more in society who silently serve every day. Basic security may be necessary for the exercise of freedom, but it’s certainly not sufficient to ensure “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That takes a bigger team.

Tone is where Mr. Fleming and I diverge. Particularly his parting comment that he walked away “ashamed of the academy.” His words reveal an almost angry contempt for this institution that produces naval officers (that he himself contributes to). Ultimately, he may have pointed out a truth but seems to have missed the truth.

Consider the context. This was a graduation ceremony, the successful completion of a tough four years. We should expect a bit of inflated language. It seems a little unfair to hold up graduation speeches as representative of an entire, enormously diverse organization.

Beyond style, on the substance, while we can agree that military folks aren’t the only ones who serve, reasonable people can also acknowledge that the costs and consequences of military service are indeed distinct.

This can be seen in the nature of their choices, present at the graduation in the words of the acting secretary of the Navy, who reminded the audience that “each of you had the opportunity to pursue an education at any number of fine universities,” but, “given [that] choice,” the soon-to-graduate middies “chose to defend the freedom, the safety, the dreams of others.”

The repercussions only reveal themselves later. Think about earlier Navy grads. Sen. John McCain, near the bottom of his Class of 1958, chose continued captivity instead of the special privilege of early release during the Vietnam War. Adm. (Ret.) James Stavridis, a distinguished graduate from the Class of 1976, recently acknowledged his service sent him to sea for nearly 11 years. These self-abnegating choices came at a high personal price.

The service academies encourage this sense of duty. For West Pointers it’s the weight of the Long Gray Line, that critical mass of mentorship that concentrates cadets on their responsibilities to the nation; or the non-denominational Cadet Prayer, which prompts cadets to “choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” Etched in stone at the Naval Academy is a Latin inscription that translates, “Not for Self, But for Country.” While no better or worse than other locations of learning, most would agree the service academy’s focus is unique and noteworthy.

No matter where, uniformed or not, we should support places that nurture, exalt, and venerate the honorable choice to serve and sacrifice for others. So graduation day at the Naval Academy should be a happy occasion. Because military or civilian, choosing the harder right is always worth celebrating.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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