In the mined waters of the Persian Gulf, the men and ships of the United States gamble with death. But here in Washington, there is toward that gathering crisis a conspicuous absence of concern. On Capitol Hill and among the leading commentators, the dominant attitude with few exceptions is one of detached passivity. This is not because of preoccupation with the Iran hearings, nor is it a sign of a more worldly tolerance of the use of organized force by the United States. No, the explanation for the disinterest of the powerful is more base: the American establishment has no direct, personal stake in the armed forces of this country.
The American establishment -- political and journalistic -- lives in a different country from those Americans whose lives are at risk off Farsi Island or those whose lives were ended in a bombed Marine barracks in Beirut. They belong to different classes in proudly classless America. It's a sure bet that any Washington dinner party guest -- conservative or liberal -- does not personally know a single one of the nearly 2 million enlisted Americanscurrently in our armed forces, but that the same guest does personally know at least one of the 20,000 Americans who have died of AIDS.
This is an indisputable legacy from Vietnam, the war that imposed no home-front shortages or rationing and demanded no civilian sacrifices. It was a war that made few Americans uncomfortable and no Americans poor. Of course, Vietnam did make 58,135 Americans dead.
In any war, most of the fighting and the dying are done by the youngest soldiers holding the lowest rank. Vietnam was no exception: more than three out of four of the Americans killed there were enlisted men between the ages of 17 and 22 and under the rank of staff sergeant. And they came, as do our current defenders, disproportionately from the working-class neighborhoods of our nation.
South Boston was just such a working-class neighborhood of approximately 2,000 draft-age young men during the 1960s. In Vietnam, 25 South Boston sons and brothers died in the service of their country. Between 1962 and 1972, Princeton graduated more than 8,000 men; six of them died in Vietnam. MIT graduated 8,998 during the same period, and two alumni were killed in Southeast Asia. Harvard graduated 12,595 men during those years, and 12 of them were killed in the war. For Notre Dame the numbers were 13,501 graduated and 38 killed.
Public pressure eventually forced U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. That public pressure mounted then because young men from every social and economic background were at least threatened with service in that war. That particular political reality has been lost on today's peace advocates who make common cause with the Nixon-Reagan policy which rests on the flimsy moral premise that the rich and the educated ought to be exempt from defending the country.
A few passionate opponents of the ''all-volunteer'' military had earlier warned that such an isolated military establishment, absent the constant civilian infusion of draftees, would be a potential force in American life. Antimilitary alarmists hinted darkly at the prospect of a ''Seven Days in May''-type takeover of the government. Such fears proved groundless. But the saga of Lt. Col. Oliver North suggests how a veteran Marine might intimidate a nonveteran like Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, who as a 1969 Harvard graduate supported U.S. presence in Vietnam for those young men from South Boston.
An exponent of military escalation with personal participation, along with Patrick Buchanan and a number of syndicated anticommunists, Abrams was almost certainly an easy mark for buffaloing by a swaggering combat hero like North, who survived the killingfields of Vietnam while Abrams was viewing the action from the London School of Economics.
We act as a nation when, as a people, we share the obligations and the perils of our common defense. The most fortunate have now imposed a policy that the burden of defending the country is to be in effect the exclusive burden of the less fortunate. Implicit in that policy is the premise that defending our nation is dirty work to be avoided by those who have been given more. Until we repeal the current system, which requires that the nation's defense be provided by young men and women whose names and identity are unknown to the nation's establishment leadership, that establishment will be able to treat national strategy as a theoretical abstraction, not as a specific policy option that could entail the life or death of their own sons and loved ones.