Monday, Nov. 5, wasn't a good day for the U.S. military in Madison.
Over at the Doyle administration building, anti-war activists were lobbying the Madison school board to remove Army recruitment signs from high school sports stadiums.
Critics say the ads mislead impressionable young people and support unconscionable war-making. I have a problem with that.
I'm at a loss to understand how a sign asking, "Are you Army strong?" and giving a recruiter's phone number represents a threat to young people. On a list of the top 2,000 baleful media images thrust before kids - have you seen the American Apparel ads pitched to teenage girls? - this ranks maybe 1,834th.
Over at East High, meanwhile, the military's estrangement from the good people of Madison was in even starker relief.
Roughly 70 parents and students turned out for a "junior night" look at post-graduation prospects for college, technical school, and yes, the military. Not one participant stopped by the military recruitment table, Sgt. Frederick Hutchison of the Marines and Machinist Mate Michael Pflanzer of the Navy told me.
Per school district policy, recruiters will have two more cracks at East High kids, and Pflanzer guardedly thought some would eventually sign up.
Oh sure, East High kids will enlist, I thought as I walked out the door carrying college-bound material for my own junior daughter. But they'll probably be black- and brown-skinned kids, or Hmong, and blue-collar kids who aren't laser-focused on college the way that the children of the professional classes are taught to be.
This is troubling, because it's just one more sign of how our shared civic culture has frayed. Military service, as UW-Madison political scientist Donald Downs suggests, is disdained by the prosperous not so much because it might endanger their children but because it doesn't further their careers.
"They think: 'It's not something our class of people should be doing. Others should do it for us,'" he says. "It's almost like maid service."
It wasn't always like this.
Former Gov. Tony Earl grew up in the postwar days of universal military conscription when everybody from Elvis Presley to Phillip Roth did a stint for Uncle Sam. After earning a B.A. from Michigan State and a law degree from the University of Chicago, Earl enlisted in the Navy for four years, from 1961 to 1965.
"It wasn't a matter of whether you went into the military, it was when," he recalls. "I had a couple of options: I could get drafted or I could join. I thought of the old line: 'Join the Navy and see the world.' I ended up spending better than two years in Norfolk, Virginia, which was not my idea of high adventure.
"But the military was filled with people in the same situation," Earl says. "We all had to go. People weren't necessarily crazy about it but you regarded it - this may sound high-minded - as part of your civic duty. You went. I think most of my peers felt the same way."
Today, in an era of gated communities, privatized public services, Blackwater mercenaries and revived left wing suspicion of the military, the notion of everyone pitching in for the common defense is downright quaint.
Predictably, radio banshees like Vicki McKenna dig their talons into anti-war activists for protesting Army recruitment, but conveniently ignore that the leading Republican voices, as card-carrying members of the economic elite, also show their own personal disdain for military service.
The millionaire venture capitalist/presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his five sons are a case in point. Not one has served a day in the armed forces. Yet candidate Romney seems quite willing as a would-be president to use other parents' sons and daughters to enforce his bellicose worldviews.
Of course, graying boomers like me who avoided the Vietnam war belatedly realized how selfish people are when they let others do the dieing in times of war.
President Nixon, the ultimate political cynic, trumped the anti-war movement in 1973 when he ended the hugely unpopular draft, buying himself another two years of mass killing in southeast Asia.
My take: We'd be out of Iraq by now if the sons and daughters of the elite and professional classes were clad in olive drab and routinely being blown up in IED booby traps.
The rich and powerful wouldn't tolerate their own children perishing in such an ill-conceived and badly fought venture.
Don Downs worries that the civilian-military gap is weakening the nation's democratic fabric. On sabbatical from teaching, the UW prof is researching a new book on university life and the college-based Reserve Officers' Training Corps.
He notes that ROTC has traditionally been justified as a democratic mechanism to diversify an officer corps that otherwise would be dominated by insular service academy graduates. But he's focusing his research on the other side of the equation: How the university experience is enriched by students being exposed to ROTC and by studying military history.
Like the social philosopher Christopher Lasch in his 1995 book, The Revolt Of The Elites And The Betrayal Of Democracy, Downs sees the upper class withdrawing from the common demands of citizenship, including military service.
"The elites are, in a sense, buying themselves out of certain obligations to the common culture," Downs says. "Their attitude towards the military is symptomatic of that."
Tony Earl agrees. "I don't think it's healthy at all," he says. "When the elite of our society have enjoyed the benefits of society but disdain the military and regard it as more appropriate for people of lesser standing, they do themselves and the country a terrible disservice."
Here's a thought.
Maybe my kids should consider a military stint. Maybe your kids should, too. Better yet, maybe we should restore a national service provision to American life in return for higher-education and home-buying aid.
Not just for kids picking the military option, but for kids serving the common good by joining the Peace Corps or Vista or the like. We'd be a stronger nation if we did.