For the past 18 years, the first six in the Massachusetts legislature and the past 12 in the U.S. Congress, Rep. Brian Donnelly, 44, has been remembering and representing his own Dorchester roots, which are working-class, blue-collar, Irish-Catholic Democrat. As Donnelly puts it, "In my district Memorial Day and Veterans Day are a lot more than a three-day holiday. Here people remember."
What Americans in neighborhoods like Brian Donnelly's remember are fathers, brothers and sons who answered the nation's call to bear arms. Vietnam, a working-class American war, was fought, and the casualties were suffered disproportionately, by just such Americans, who -- when they did return -- were rewarded not with the gratitude and praise and economic "betters" but instead with cold indifference and cruel scorn. Then, privileged collegiate longhairs regularly excoriated patriotic hardhats.
America's defenders still come disproportionately from working-class families and neighborhoods, but this time enthusiasm and support for an American war is not to be found in working-class America or among its elected Democratic representatives in Congress, including Brian Donnelly.
On the declaration-of-war vote, House Democrats representing working-class voters in Akron, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Dayton, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Toledo and Youngstown, to name just a few, all voted to continue the blockade and embargo of Iraq instead of going to war. Why? Explains Donnelly, "We're the ones who have to go to Malloy's Funeral Home in Dorchester to comfort the grieving parents by telling them their sons died in a noble cause. . . . My people, especially the gray-haired shot-and-a-beer kind of guy in a VFW jacket, believe we're driving headfirst into the quicksand."
Among such people, military service has never been just another job motivated by a better parking space or a corner office. They understood that their nation could call them to risk death and to kill strangers in the national interest. But they also see a national leadership exactly like that during Vietnam, a leadership which boldly asks some 450,000 Americans to make the ultimate sacrifice of life itself and then cowardly cringes rather than dare ask the rest of us to pay even another buck in taxes or to limit our mindless gas guzzling. In the Persian Gulf, the nation's political leadership asks everything of a brave few and nothing at all from anybody else.
From the elite this time comes neither indifference nor scorn for America's warriors. No, the establishment message today goes mostly along these lines: We respect you, our fighting men and women; we send you our esteem, our appreciation and compliments; in short, we'll send you everything except our children.
Does it make any real difference that the sons of America's political and economic leadership are overwhelmingly missing from the front lines in Saudi Arabia? You bet it does. Nothing arouses us Americans from our political apathy quicker than being personally touched by a public policy. Ronald Reagan was right: when my neighbor loses his job, it's a recession; when I lose my job, it's a depression. The elitist premise that currently governs is that any exposure of the nation's most advantaged and gifted sons to combat would not be in the national interest.
What people in Rep. Bob Traxler's (D-Mich.) Saginaw and Rep. Marcy Kaptur's (D-Ohio) Toledo live with is the deindustrialization of America. To Traxler, the words are: "How come my kid can't get a job at GM like I did and my father did?" But the real question is: "What's wrong with our nation? Why are our kids fighting to guarantee oil for our competition, a united Europe and Japan?" Marcy Kaptur hears similar sentiments in Toledo, where her constituents worry that "our sons and brothers are fighting for no ideals" in the Persian Gulf. The cynical words of a playwright come to mind: "War is capitalism with the gloves off."
Among the blue-collar Americans, whose sons and daughters fight for us and die for us, there is not this time a blind faith in our national leadership. There is doubt that the American cause in the Persian Gulf qualifies as a good war, as a genuine national crusade. That's an enormous difference from Vietnam.