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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

The silent leader

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- By now, we must have learned from truly painful experience that the nation's strength is ultimately measured by the will and resolve of the people of that nation to stand together -- in individual and universal sacrifice -- for the common good.

During the Vietnam War, American leadership failed to ask virtually anything of the vast majority of the country's citizens, while imposing an enormous and disproportionate sacrifice upon a relatively few men.

Nobody captured that failure better than Jim Webb in his memorable novel, "Fields of Fire." Webb -- a Marine platoon leader and company commander in Vietnam, where he earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts -- wrote these words for a Marine sergeant returning to Vietnam for a second tour after a visit home to the United States: " Lieutenant, you'd hardly know there was a war on. It's in the papers ... but that's it. Airplane drivers still drive their airplanes. Businessmen still run their businesses. College kids go to college. It's like nothing really happened except to other people. It isn't touching anybody except us."

Sound at all familiar? President George W. Bush, who lived through those Vietnam years, has failed in this war to ask anything -- except from the American men and women in military service whom he emphatically calls the nation's "best citizens" -- from those of us on the home front. Not only will we civilians not have to pay for the war, if we're successful enough we'll get a tax break for our troubles.

Bush's tax break won't do much for those Americans doing the fighting, you see, because the base pay for a staff sergeant is $21,247.20 and for a first lieutenant it's $30,182.40, which would mean an average tax-cut for all American service personnel in those ranks or below of approximately $148.

The president's logic must work like this: Obviously to serve in the military and to risk your life for your country qualifies you to be one of the nation's "best citizens" and is a great honor.

But to ask Rupert Murdoch or Leona Helmsley, fortunate billionaires (whose very freedom those brave "best citizens" are defending), just to pay their fair share of taxes would be a near-criminal imposition upon their liberty and a raid on their property. Go figure.

But don't worry, those productive civilians struggling to make ends meet and bringing home barely a million dollars a year would, under Bush's plan, get a tax cut of $90,222. Class warfare is now over -- the richest won.

Where is all this money going to come from? It will be borrowed, and the bill will be passed on to the nation's young people -- the same ones we're always insisting we care so much about. Since President Bush's last big tax-cut of $1.35 trillion passed the Congress some 23 months ago, the national debt we are passing on to our children -- including those brave young men and women who come back from Iraq -- has increased by close to $820 billion.

To put that last figure in perspective: Through the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and all the years in between, the federal government ran up less debt than it has in the last 23 months. Back then, American presidents challenged citizens to increase their own taxes to pay for the wars, and back then citizens answered that challenge.

The idea of giving tax breaks to the most privileged non-combatants and then passing the cost of those bequests on to the next generation of teachers, nurses, cops and returning Marines and soldiers would have been unacceptable. The 2003 War Against Iraq is the only war this nation has entered both without a military draft and with a tax-cut.

Mr. President, other than the loved ones of those in harm's way in the Gulf tonight, you have asked the vast majority of your fellow citizens to pay no price, to bear no burden. We are better than that. Challenge us. Begin by asking us to pay the bill. War is not and cannot be a spectator sport.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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