Saluting those who serve

For many Americans, Memorial Day marks little more than the start of summer. It’s a day off to mow the lawn, go to the pool or grill in the back yard.

But it’s no holiday for America’s best. Memorial Day will find our troops fighting terrorists and other enemies of freedom around the globe. For their sake, let’s ponder what this holiday really means.

Recently, my wife and I visited Arlington Cemetery, walking along the rows of American heroes and celebrating the well-lived life of a recently deceased friend.

Those simple grave markers tell great stories. Many represent those who served bravely overseas, then came home to raise families, start businesses and build a great nation. Others signify those who never made it back. They made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could live in freedom and prosperity.

Still others memorialize those who died in the conflict that created Arlington and so many other national cemeteries. Their service in our Civil War helped end slavery, allowing even those who came here in chains to experience freedom.

Of course, Memorial Day is also a time to celebrate the living, those Americans who voluntarily don our country’s uniform and fight for liberty. It’s worth remembering that every person who has enlisted since late 2001 has done so knowing we’re at war, and understanding that combat experience is likely.

These volunteers are the cream of the crop, and it’s amazing that such a small group of people is able to accomplish so much. Less than 1 percent of our country’s population serves in the military, yet the U.S. projects power worldwide.

A major criticism of the Vietnam War was that, because college students could defer service, lower-income Americans were drafted to fight while their wealthier peers stayed home. But that’s changed dramatically with our modern, all-volunteer force.

Two years ago former Heritage Foundation economist Tim Kane used Pentagon data to determine which ZIP codes recruits hailed from. He found that an increasing number of upper- and middle-class Americans are volunteering to serve their country.

“The percentage of recruits from the poorest American neighborhoods (with one-fifth of the U.S. population) declined from 18 percent in 1999 to 14.6 percent in 2003, 14.1 percent in 2004, and 13.7 percent in 2005,” Mr. Kane wrote.

So what do we owe these brave volunteers, other than our respect and gratitude? Mainly, to give them what they deserve: the tools to win. That means spending what’s necessary for new weapons systems, including aircraft carriers and fighter jets. That’s not too much to ask of a nation as wealthy as ours.

After all, today the United States spends much more on leisure pursuits than on national defense. Every year Americans shell out $589 billion on entertainment and dining out, and $543 billion on leisure travel. Meanwhile, our government invests $537 billion on national defense. As a percentage of our gross domestic product (about 4 percent today), that’s far less than we’ve spent in past wars.

As Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned shortly after assuming his post last year, “I think as a country we’re just going to have to devote more resources to national security in the world that we’re living in right now.” That’s worth remembering this weekend.

For generations our country has fielded an elite fighting force, as Kaiser Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein learned the hard way. That’s certainly true today. “Wartime U.S. military enlistees are better educated, wealthier and more rural on average than their civilian peers,” Mr. Kane discovered.

On Memorial Day, let’s honor these patriots and thank them for their service. Because of our brave troops, the United States faces a bright future of freedom and prosperity.

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