In its first hour following the massacre of American Marines in Beirut, the MacNeil-Lehrer Report presented a memorable segment filmed one month earlier in Lebanon. In that segment, Jim Webb, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam turned writer (and a good one, too) interviewed some young Marines then on assignment for their government in Lebanon.
What was most fascinating about the interviews was the interviewees. The young men themselves were un-self-conscious as they spoke of the dangerous task they had been given. These were young men who grew up in the same society that produced and promoted John McEnroe and designer chocolates. They had been exposed to the same senseless noise about the tragedy of fatty thighs and the tyranny of the wrinkle. They had heard of the critical importance of getting in close touch with your feelings, of boldly asserting yourself, of Getting Everything Now, Because You Deserve It.
But those young Americans in Beirut who were walking and bunking with death sounded different. They spoke without complaining of their task. They spoke seriously of duty, duty they obviously took quite seriously. They were not reckless in speech or manner; there was none of the papier- mach,e warrior--full of swagger and forced bravado. Most were frank to admit they would, if offered the option, prefer to be home rather than where they were. But, quite apparently, they cared deeply about what they were doing.
I will not romanticize the Marine Corps. Surely there must have been more important moments in my life, but very few happier than the one when, after completing 13 weeks of boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., I finally boarded the train north. My memories of the Marine Corps are not all happy ones. But that is not what these few paragraphs are about.
What they are about is some young Americans in the fall of 1983 who believed in what they were doing, who believed in each other and cared openly about each other. That's not all bad. Very few of the Marines Jim Webb interviewed would be candidates for admission to Harvard or Stanford business schools. But how many MBAs or CEOs will ever know what it's like to have somebody right next to you, in a moment of crisis, who shares your values, who knows his job thoroughly, who will not run if things go badly, and who gives a very large damn about your own survival? To say nothing about not scheming to get your job?
At a time when the principal sacrifice asked of affluent Americans is to accept meekly a one- third reduction of their federal taxes (so that we can pay for the doubling of the defense budget), at a time when young Americans are not asked, as they were only 20 years ago, for their idealism but rather for their price, those young, brave, committed Americans--who faced tragedy and death--provided an inspiration and an encouraging example.
So here is a simple suggestion. The next time you are out in a public place and see a serviceman or woman (who in periods of non-crisis somehow are allowed to become either invisible or faceless or both) go up to that person. Smile and say thank you for what he is doing. If you have an extra buck in your pocket and feel the urge, why not offer to buy that person in uniform a soda or a beer?
The Marines on MacNeil-Lehrer reminded us that the United States is an awful lot more than a gross national product and the averages of 30 industrials. Greed is no match for patriotism in a very tight spot.