Snapping to Attention

By DAVID BROOKS

The New York Times

August 3, 2004

A few years ago, while covering John McCain's presidential campaign, I noticed this weird phenomenon. When he spoke to veterans in South Carolina, they would greet him warmly but not effusively.

Then he'd go before a college audience in New Hampshire and everybody would be in rapture. For students, McCain was someone who had endured things they couldn't even imagine enduring. For them - and for us media types who had also never served-McCain's experience was practically supernatural.

In that campaign, as in this one, there was something hypercharged in the way we civilians regarded the military. Our attitudes seem bipolar: we're either at the military's throat or we're at its feet.

Sometimes the military is regarded as a bizarre, primeval institution dangerously at odds with enlightened American culture. We can't let ROTC programs corrupt our Ivy League campuses because the military is not nice to gays. We can't trust the Pentagon brass with their budget requests because they are part of a greedy military-industrial complex. We can't let our kids enlist because that's no way to get ahead. We can't let generals run our foreign policy because they are bloodthirsty warmongers or overly cautious pacifists (take your pick).

Then, at the flick of a cultural switch, the same people who were watching "Dr. Strangelove," "M*A*S*H" and "Platoon" are lining up to see "Top Gun," "Saving Private Ryan" and "We Were Soldiers." Suddenly the military is a bastion of the higher virtues - selflessness, duty and honor. Suddenly military service is practically a requirement for political office. If you haven't served in combat, you shouldn't be making policy in wartime.

We've just finished a Democratic convention, of all things, that was little more than a long military worship session. John Kerry's military heroism was celebrated while the rest of his career was nearly forgotten. Bill Clinton said it was more honorable to have served in Vietnam than to have evaded service, and the multitudes, many of whom had evaded, cheered madly. Middle-aged peace activists who had despised the military in the Westmoreland era now paid lavish homage to it in the Shalikashvili era.

I get the feeling these bipolar attitudes arise from a cocktail of ignorance, guilt and envy. First, there are large demographic chunks of the nation in which almost nobody serves. People there may not know what's bigger, a brigade or a battalion.

At the same time, they know there's something unjust in the fact that they get to enjoy America while others sacrifice for it, and sense deep down that there's something ennobling in military service. It involves some set of character tests they didn't get in summer internships. As Samuel Johnson piercingly observed, "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier."

So we go through these cycles of contempt and romance. When the military is in ill repute, we ask too little of it. When it is admired, we ask too much. Now, for example, many people seem to think that military experience is the key to foreign policy judgment and national leadership.

But I can't help noticing that John F. Kennedy, who knew something about heroism, didn't look to military heroes when he was contemplating the crisis of his times. In his book "Profiles in Courage," he celebrated senators. The courage he investigated wasn't military courage at all. It was political courage, which requires a different set of traits.

Kennedy's exemplars were statesmen like John Quincy Adams and Robert Taft, who knew how to make up their minds and stand on principle, who knew when to serve constituents and when to serve conscience, who withstood furious public attacks for something they felt was right.

In other words, while Kennedy obviously admired military valor, he saw it as subservient to political leadership. We, on the other hand, are deeply cynical about political leadership and political life, and displace our hopes onto anything else.

My own instinct is that we need an ambitious national service program to demystify the military for the next generation of Americans. It also seems clear, looking at our history, that combat heroism is not an essential qualification for a wartime leader. It's much more important to have the political courage that Lincoln had and Kennedy celebrated. But don't listen to me. I never served.

E-mail: dabrooks@nytimes.com