Our father, Henry Ellis (Schimberg) Stone served in the Army Air Corps (the original name of the Air Force) for nearly six years. By the end of World War II, he had spent nearly 20% of his life in uniform. Dad (1915-2002) was billeted to India as part of the CBI (the China-India-Burma Theater), where he forecast weather trends for transport planes flying over some of the most treacherous terrain on the earth: “The Hump.” This was the name Allied pilots in the Second World War gave to the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains over which they flew military transport aircraft from India to China. It was a deadly route along which thousands of pilots died or were gravely injured. Forecasting weather trends in this part of the world was a crucial job; one which Dad rarely - if ever - spoke of for the rest of his life.
Towards the end of his long and very well-lived life, Dad did tell us a little bit about his time in the CBI. I remember him telling us about the grinding poverty he witnessed in India (a place to which he never returned - even as a tourist); of the searing heat and the pressure of having to be as accurate as humanly possible in order to safeguard the lives of the pilots who daily disappeared into the haze, bound for China with their precious cargo. I also remember him telling us that he felt rather badly for all those men and women who were still talking about their war experiences nearly 70 years after its conclusion - as if it was the high-point of their lives. “You have to have some compassion for them,” he told us. “I know that my life was far more fascinating and challenging both before and after the war . . . “ Then too, he added, “ those who are still telling war stories after so many, many years are probably stretching the truth just a bit . . . to put it mildly.“ Dad, remembered by one and all as a “wondrously handsome gentleman,” was originally destined for - perhaps - for film stardom. After serving his six years in the war, he realized that he would have to find another path to success. Instead of becoming a Hollywood heart throb, he became one of their favorite stockbrokers, introducing a generation to a new financial instrument: mutual funds. It was a match made in heaven.
Dad, who was not, in the norm, a philosophical or reflective sort, did tell us that the most positive thing about his years in the service, was meeting, working alongside - and bonding with - all sorts of people. In many, many cases, he told us, he was the first Jew many of his comrades had ever met in the flesh. And for him - a young man who had spent his formative years in Baltimore and Richmond, Virginia - it was the first time he had ever met corn-fed mid-Westerners, New England Yankees, Sooners, Arkansans and people from the rural north who were educated in one-room schoolhouses. “In a way,” he recollected when in his mid-eighties, “one great byproduct of service was introducing Americans to one another; it’s much much harder to stereotype people you’ve actually lived, worked and shared life with . . . “
Growing up in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, a majority of our family friends - both men and women - saw some sort of service during the war. Even mom worked for a spell at an Italian Prisoner of War camp at Ft. Scottsbluff in Western Nebraska, where 4,000 POWs worked the bean and sugar-beet fields. To us, it just seemed normal that our parents and friends’ parents had served in the war . . . and then got back to the challenges of civilian life. In other words, veterans were not other peoples’ fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters . . . they were ours. That, of course, is no longer the case; most of us aren’t related to veterans.
Fast-forward a couple of generations and we find that more and more, people frequently don’t know their neighbors - let alone folks from different parts of the country or totally different backgrounds. And what’s worse, through the “gift” of social media, ignorance-based stereotyping - frequently stoked by so-called “leaders” who should know better - has grabbed an awful lot of Americans by the collar and shaken them into high-walled, case-hardened opposing camps. Our politics have become so impermeable, so hermetically-sealed, that today, where one stands is frequently the product of where one sits. Partly, of course, it’s because we no longer look through the same eyes; mostly, however, it’s due to our no longer knowing one another; partisanship and political puerility have easily lapped what used to be known as “the commonweal,” viz, “that which is shared and beneficial for members of a group, a community or even a nation.”
As we observe Veterans Day - an annual commemoration established 100 years ago (and known until 1954 as “Armistice Day”) - we give thanks to all those who have served (or still serve) this great nation in both war and in peace. Some saw service in wars of necessity; others in wars of choice. We even knew people who helped build bridges, dams, libraries and parks during the Great Depression. Heretofore, millions were drafted or enlisted; for the past generation, they have all been volunteers. Unbeknownst to many, the Selective Service System is still in operation, and registration is still mandatory in most states for every male (and soon females) from age 18-26, though the last prosecution for non-registration was in January 1986. Its current director is Don Benton, who was appointed by President Donald Trump April 13, 2017. Prior to this position, he served as the Trump campaign chair in Washington State.
In contemplating veterans of our collective past, present, and even future - of all they have meant to America and indeed, the world - I find myself pondering the nature of national service - of its importance in American civil life. I hear the words of the late President Kennedy - himself a war hero: “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.” I wonder if American society would be any different - any more unified, tolerant and understanding, less divided and territorial - if, like past generations - we worked together side by side as opposed to standing apart; if we could once again commit ourselves to accomplishing common goals instead of standing defiantly in our private corners, surrounded only by those with whom we agree. If we could, in JFK’s awe-inspiring trope ask not what our country could do for us, but rather what we could do for our country. Would we be any better off? I think the answer is “yes.”
In short, I find myself on this Veterans Day contemplating the possible unifying value that National Service could offer this country and its citizens, residents, and refugees. Congressman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat who served in Congress from 1971-2017, submitted his first legislative proposal for a “Universal National Service Act” in 2003; his bill would have provided that, as early as June 2005, young men and women ages 18–26 could be called to service - and not just military service. It had two cosponsors and was voted down 402-2. Rangel resubmitted different forms of his bill again in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2013 and 2017; it never saw the light of day. Not too long ago, South Bend, Indiana Mayor - and Democratic presidential candidate - Pete Buttigieg, speaking to MSNBC’s Rachael Maddow (who, like Mayor Pete is a former Rhodes Scholar) spoke at length about how, in his estimation, a national public service program for all young adults could help unify Americans of different backgrounds. "We really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era," Mayor Pete told Ms. Maddow. "One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it — if not legally obligatory but certainly a social norm — that anybody, after they're 18, spends a year in national service."
Such a program should, in theory, appeal to both parties — the idealism speaking to Democrats, and the service component drawing in conservatives. Without question, if such a program were to be enacted, it would need to be bipartisan. If would unquestionably require a different Republican president or a Democratic president. 45’ is unlikely to ever call for such a program, anyway; his 2020 budget proposes to eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the agency that runs AmeriCorps. I for one urge every Democratic nominee for POTUS to make Mayor Pete’s proposal part of their campaigns and for the Democratic Party to make it a prominent plank in the 2020 election. The nuts and bolts of funding, creating (or reworking) an agency that combines the past efficiency of Selective Service and ongoing idealism of Americorps is doable; these are, after all just details. The hardest part is getting both politicians and citizens to understand and acknowledge that national service is a good and positive thing; that the nation need not be at war in order to benefit from national service.
Our parents, grandparents and great grandparents saved the world from fascism 75 years ago. It is daunting to realize that the vast, vast majority of those who accomplished this were children and young adults - at least by modern standards. (Hell’s bells: Dad was only 30 years old at war’s end and he was considered ancient!) If we can but take away the lesson of working together for national goals on this Veterans Day, we will have honored them in the best way possible . . . thereby helping to save ourselves, and getting to know and work with a vast slice of humanity.
I wish you all a meaningful, contemplative and energizing Veterans Day.
There are now 357 days to go until the presidential election.
Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone