Let's Hail Those Whom We Really Need

During the Vietnam War, I taught courses in civil-military relations and the politics of national defense at Temple University. A must topic was the military draft. It was important because men who had the economic and intellectual resources to get into college, and to stay in the top half of their class, got a student deferment.

Every professor then knew students who would rather have been dental technicians than dentists, physical therapists than physicians, mechanics than mechanical engineers, chefs than clergymen, or artists than architects. But they chose degree-necessary careers in order to avoid the draft.

As the war dragged on, more and more students on more and more campuses displayed an attitude that can best be described as the arrogance of intellect and status. One of mine expressed it this way: "I have the money and the brains to become a physicist, not a plumber. So it would be a waste to me and society if I were forced into the army against my will."

At first glance, Albert Einstein the physicist seems much more valuable than Joe Smith the plumber. But would we not be better off with more plumbers than physicists? After all, Smith and his peers repair things - a vanishing talent - whereas Einstein and his colleagues did the science that made nuclear bombs possible.

Not only that. When Einstein's toilets overflowed, he doubtless stood by helplessly and watched the water ruin his carpets. Instead of doing his famous thought experiments on the relationship between time and space, at that moment he assumably considered a plumber to be much more critical to his personal universe than even a Nobel laureate in physics.

Most brainy types react exactly as Einstein probably did. We avoid people in low-status occupations, taking note of them only when we need them, such as now, when there is another terrorism scare in the Anglo-Saxon world.

When Murphy's Law struck - as it always does - and your computer broke down while you were preparing a brief due in court the next day, you didn't call the man who invented or who manufactured the damn machine; you called the one who could fix it. When you were very ill, it was high-status doctors who put you into the hospital. But it was low-status, yet experienced. nurses who got you out. 

In your mind, the cop who delivered your baby on the Street because you didn't get your wife to the hospital on time ought to be promoted and commended by the mayor. But the cop who gave you a ticket when you drove fifty miles an hour in a school zone, as you took the baby home, was just a misunderstanding meanie bent on meeting what you have always been convinced is his precinct's daily quota for traffic citations.

Here in the West, forest fires come as regularly as do the lovely summers. People die and houses burn in these conflagrations - but not as many as would without the bravery and skill of the "hotshots," the firefighters who risk their lives to save us and our property. 

Elsewhere in the nation, nature brings winds, blizzards,  tornadoes, and hurricanes, which can knock out power and telephone service. Other than complaining of the relatively few instances when the hotshots fail, or when the power and telephones are not restored as quickly as we impatient Americans would like, do we often think about the firefighters, the technicians, and the civil servants who serve us?

Then there is the military. Both in war and in peace, high-status Americans think that volunteer soldiers have no brains and no education. The truth is otherwise. Many U.S. officers have master's degrees and Ph.D.s., and more than a few NCOs and enlisted men have bachelor's degrees, which they came into the service with or earned while in the military. In U.S. Special Forces, composed of sergeants and officers, being comfortable in at least two foreign languages and foreign cultures is a sine qua non.

So as we lawyers, economists, psychologists, professors, doctors, corporate CEOs, and all the others who enjoy prestige and prosperity in this land glory in our lot in life, let us hail those who perform the tasks that made that lucky lot possible. 

Edward Bernard Glick of Portland, OR  is the author of Between Israel and Death and a professor emeritus of political science at Temple University in Philadelphia. He is also a former truck driver and machinist's helper.