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Honoring Memorial Day by becoming smarter voters
Unlike other holidays, Memorial Day isn't one we "celebrate". Instead, it is proper that we honor it. And one of the ways it is most deserving of honor is for ordinary Americans to demonstrate that they don't just know how to say "Thank you for your service" or remove their caps for the national anthem, but to behave as responsible trustees of the world's most awesome military force.
■ One of the things the Defense Department does admirably is to place a focus (even if imperfect) on Professional Military Education (PME). Certainly some people pay it only lip service, but there are true believers out there who feel a deep responsibility for the quality of the education their people receive. As James Mattis put it, "The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men's experience) -- that is the hard way. By reading, you learn through others' experiences -- generally a better way to do business -- especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men."
■ Fundamentally, a responsibility to learn about the armed forces rests with voters, too. Not in the same way or to the same depth as it belongs to, say, career officers. But there is a responsibility. The military answers ultimately to Congress, and Congress to the people. The people need to have a sense of how to commit military forces responsibly and thoughtfully so that we avoid those gravest "consequences of incompetence" that Mattis warns about.
■ There will be times when a small commitment of force today may stave off a great escalation of violence tomorrow. There will be other times when a cause is so hopeless that the potential casualties may be unlimited. Still other cases will be dominated not by the actual use of force but the mere credible threat of it. The choice to commit military force to a situation is ultimately a political one under our system of government, and it rests on the shoulders of responsible voters to know something -- anything -- about their armed forces beyond one-line political slogans about ending "endless wars" and jingoistic pop-country songs about kicking butts while waving the flag.
■ Fortunately, we have access to more high-quality Voter Military Education than ever before. We have access to the professional reading lists recommended by leadership in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps (the Space Force may still need some time to incubate its own list).
■ We have free access to websites publishing thoughtful and challenging materials on conflict, like The Strategy Bridge, Texas National Security Review, Defense One, Task and Purpose, and War on the Rocks.
■ There are think tanks and research centers devoted to national security, many of which share their work on a daily basis, including the Modern War Institute the American Enterprise Institute the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, and the Center for a New American Security -- to name only a few.
■ And there are podcasts galore (like "Thank You For Your Service" and "Rational Security") and an abundance of qualified national-security commentators on Twitter -- many of whom hold thoughtful conversations with one another, engaging in a necessarily robust debate. The daily ins and outs of military-related news are covered by the Military Times, Stars and Stripes, Defense News, and the Defense Department's own media organization.
■ The conscientious voter doesn't have to follow every source of defense and national-security-related news. But at least some of that news ought to be a component of a balanced media and information diet. The latest Defense Department budget proposal is $753 billion -- no mere drop in the bucket for a country with an annual GDP of $21 trillion. Knowing how and why those resources will be spent is a basic act of civic responsibility.
■ But even more significantly -- and particularly so on Memorial Day -- good citizenship requires informed engagement because it is ultimately the duty of voters to send the signals that tell political representatives how and when to commit living, breathing servicemembers to a task. Doing that wisely is a solemn responsibility.
■ To borrow again from James Mattis: "I believe that many of my young guys lived because I didn't waste their lives because I didn't have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at the least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefield." Just as commanding generals should take that duty seriously, so should anyone who casts a ballot. Voter Military Education should be an expectation of us all, not just those wearing stars on their shoulders.