Earlier this month your columnist ended a military career that began as a 17-year-old three decades ago. That is sufficient time to have been in the infantry, even if much of it was part time. Now it is certain the Army is eager to trade this nearly 50-year-old lieutenant colonel for two 25-year-old lieutenants.
So I retire. Naturally, there are economic lessons here.
My military career was unexceptional. I spent four years in a military college, more than two additional years in specialized schools (jumping out of planes, blowing up bridges, combat air traffic control, planning battles and the like). I spent most of one year in a war, a big part of another in peacekeeping service and the rest training my soldiers for war. I have dug foxholes in Africa, Asia, Europe and in the U.S. (perhaps I should be a professor of comparative soil geology).
The warrior part of being a soldier is rewarding, even in the direst of settings. This satisfaction is heightened by the experience of command. By the age of 28, I had led companies of 300 soldiers and more than $50 million of equipment. This is not uncommon, which is why military experience is so unique.
It must be admitted that the satisfaction of being part of a small warrior clan is leavened by some unpleasantness. The Veterans Administration now judges me to be only about 80 percent of the man I was when I joined the Army – an assessment sadly not based on body weight. Even a short war is a haunting experience and not a day has passed in which I do not recall it. Moreover, my mother, father, wife and children sacrificed much as well. Families receive neither medals nor parades, yet they surely deserve thanks from a grateful nation.
The distance of time tells me that too much attention is paid to wartime service, and too little to that of peacetime. Looking back, I am proud of many things and wish I had done more. But am most pleased with that 17-year-old who chose to serve at a time in which military service was an unpopular path. Oh, how the world has changed.
In 1980, only about a third of the world enjoyed basic freedoms. As I retire, that share has doubled. That is more than two billion souls freed in over three decades. Freedom will always find a way, but our military deserves much of the credit for this change. This new birth of freedom is the largest in human history and today only a handful of truly totalitarian states still linger.
The economic lesson here is straightforward. Virtually all lasting and meaningful change in the world requires patience and fortitude. Quick fixes are transient or illusory. So, be it our difficult health care financing system, the runaway public debt, weakness in education or a broken tax system a real remedy needs time, and thoughtful commitment of lots of idealistic young people.