My profession allows me to visit with many new people, some of them quite accomplished. Some time ago, I visited with a thirty-something private equity professional in St. Louis. Jay (not his real name) was articulate and very bright, clearly a member of the cognitive elite. This did not make him especially unusual - many folks in the private equity world have the same profile. Jay, however, is different than most. He is a West Point graduate who spent over ten years in the U.S. Armed Forces, serving as an officer in the Rangers. He was in uniform during the first Gulf Conflict, during 9/11, and during the launch of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. He saw lots of stuff, I'm sure. I suspect that the stress and trauma associated with the private equity profession doesn't trouble him much after his combat service.
As I was speaking with Jay, I began to reflect on my own brush with the military. I registered for the draft when I turned 18, in 1972. The Vietnam War was winding down; the U.S. did not draft many folks in 1972 and it was clear that the draft was going to disappear soon. So I was able to avoid national service easily, with no drama. I wasn't drafted, and I didn't volunteer. I was relieved that I didn't have to make any decisions about serving in the military. I wanted to go to college and attend to my selfish goals.
I feel bad about that now, especially when I meet someone like Jay. I have never been in favor of conscription, but I am in favor of serving. Military service doesn't "work" for everyone, but some form of national service could (AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, a new environmental clean-up service, etc. etc.). Devoting time and effort to something beyond your narrow self-interest is good for the community, and its good for the human soul, too. But it can be bad for the wallet and bad for family relationships. I let self-interest govern my decision in 1972; it still governs me today. I am not kicking myself too hard about this; I am an imperfect human and can't expect to do everything that might be worthwhile. But when I meet a guy like Jay, I feel a bit ashamed. He stepped up, and carried us selfish people on his back. Regardless of what one might think regarding the worthiness of America's recent wars and other military adventures, it is important to remember that very capable people are in service on our behalf, and on behalf of the military policies of our government.