Hello, sailor! Last week the Navy was in town. It was Fleet Week in New York, and a dozen cruisers and destroyers as well as the amphibious assault ship the USS Iwo Jima were docked off the West Side and Staten Island. One of the most ebullient celebrations of this city was the Gene Kelly-Frank Sinatra musical, On the Town, about three sailors on a 24-hour pass in the Big Apple. The song “New York, New York, it’s a helluva town” comes from that movie. But nowadays, except on special occasions, we rarely see members of the military on Manhattan’s streets.
Maybe that’s because so few of today’s forces come from the northeast: only 14 percent, down from 22 percent during Vietnam. Philip Weiss, writing recently in The New York Observer, the Manhattan weekly of the chattering classes, decried what he called “the poverty draft,” which leads poor rural whites, immigrant Hispanics, and poor blacks to volunteer.
“The college educated would regard it as a waste if their children were to join the military,” he noted, commenting “If privileged youth were called upon to make the greatest sacrifice that a society demands of its citizens, this war would probably be ended in an instant.”
And that’s the problem. Not that the military continues to be a stepping stone for the less privileged (as it always has been), but that today the most privileged have so little familiarity with or respect for our military. The real poverty may be in their unashamedly self-centered outlook.
It is typical for those with an elite Manhattan mindset to know or care little about those who serve. I’m more fortunate. My older son was on the Iwo Jima when it was berthed at Pier 88. He is an officer in the Naval Reserve, and being on board was part of his two weeks of active duty.
This son sometimes made me wonder: Can someone simply be born a patriot? He didn’t arrive in the world waving a flag, but even when he was quite young, he was very proud of being an American. One year he even insisted we make a special trip to Washington. He wanted a photograph of himself in front of the White House for his eighth-grade yearbook. Just in case!
Like the character Michael J. Fox played in Family Ties, as a young teenager he became one of “Reagan’s Children,” inspired by the president’s deeply held vision of America as a “shining city on the hill,” a special place with a unique destiny. He stuck to his guns those years when I–like the good liberal I was then–complained loudly about everything that was wrong with America, the way liberals still do.
Once when we were together I went to vote in a Democratic primary. The woman at the voting booth told me I wasn’t a registered Democrat but a registered Liberal. Jonathan, who was about 15 at the time, said, “Mom, this is the single most mortifying moment of my entire life!” It took a while but he finally raised me right.
Jonathan did end up working in Washington, first on the Hill, and now for the administration. About four years ago he also decided he wanted to join the Naval Reserve. Why? To test himself, I think, and also, he told me, “Because I want to be able to say I have served my country this way. I think I should.”
Last week, he showed his brother and me around the Iwo Jima. Though years in Washington can make even the most loyal patriot a tad cynical, he had nothing but admiration for his shipmates and the ship, which has recently returned from Liberia.
Because he is a public-affairs officer, he spent a lot of time during Fleet Week walking around the city, setting up photos of sailors on the town in New York for their hometown papers. Those in small towns–and the editors of their papers–don’t think it is a “waste of time” when their kids join the military, even though they recognize there may be sacrifices involved. Maybe the privileged think if their sons and daughters were involved this war could be stopped “in an instant.” Most New Yorkers are far more realistic. Jonathan told me people kept stopping him and the other sailors to say “Thank you. Thank you for your service to our nation.”
It really can be a helluva town.
–Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.