When the youngest Spartan hoplites geared up for a new campaign, their commander would ask: "What's the difference between you and the Spartan king?" The rookies would hesitate, not sure if this was yet another manly test or a genuine inquiry into social status.
I'm reminded of this every time I visit Thompson Memorial Chapel on the Williams College campus. It's a fine place to meditate and leave the world behind like kicked up dust on a country road. It also thrusts history upon me.
Towering above the pews like birds of prey are the names of Williams' war dead. They're organized in ranks and files on the limestone walls, as if in proud, parade ground formation. As a war memorial - being a veteran I've visited many - it ranks second in solemnity only to the Cadet Chapel at West Point.
But the Williams shrine is no less significant, and far more illuminating. Beginning with founder Ephraim Williams who fell in a pre-Revolutionary skirmish, the names are classified by conflict, covering every war through several centuries and ending in the 1970s with Vietnam.
The conspicuous absence of names following that disaster is unsettling.
Indeed, this void indicates a growing social divide - that of privileged Americans not strapping on their share of the load once the U.S. turned to all-volunteer forces. Nowhere else is this more striking than inside the Beltway, and at top institutions that produce many of today's leaders.
The demographics of Congress speak loudly on this issue. In 1974, as conscription ended in the wake of Vietnam, 80 percent of our national legislators were veterans. Today, that number has fallen under 20 percent for the first time in history.
Increasingly, the government's most influential members - and their children - are products of the elite schools
In the past, Williams and other Little Ivies had a fair number of their graduates serve in uniform; today that number has dwindled to a handful. So there is credibility in a legislator such as just-retired Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel, a Korean War veteran, who always pushed to reinstitute conscription.
Rangel's allies, who include both Democrats and Republicans, correctly argue that America's lower and middle classes assume too many of the risks in periods of prolonged conflict - such as the last decade. Meanwhile, scions of the upper classes don't, and as a result, lose the ability to shape national security from a user perspective.
In this same vein, the majority of sovereign nations, many which we tout as examples of benevolent societies in matters such as universal health care, require conscription. In these countries, however progressive, military service remains one of the paybacks to a state that provides cradle-to-grave public programs.
Meanwhile, the bulk of our military's leadership is increasingly produced by the larger land-grant state universities and the military academies, and less so from the Ivies and their smaller equivalents, such as Williams. These institutions have their share of leaders in nearly every walk of life - why then cede their influence in the Pentagon?
Our military, which in the Digital Age must handle far more sophisticated missions than just to take and hold ground, has a highly educated officer corps, and would benefit from an infusion of classic liberal arts graduates from the nation's top private schools.
Recent moves such as Harvard reviving its storied ROTC program are a step in the right direction. And students at Williams can tap into officer commissioning courses at several Albany, N.Y. colleges.
But at a college named for a hero of the French and Indian War, the ethos needed to overcome logistical inconvenience seems scarce, as is the will to look past prevailing ideologies on elite campuses - even in the name of societal fairness.
So after staring at that post-Vietnam void of home-grown Spartans on the wall, I always leave Thompson Chapel at peace, but with a reminder of the perils of privilege, and the demands of leadership - which echo back to the ancient Greek paradigm.
Pointing to the ground, the Spartan commander advised his neophytes: "The difference between you and the king is that when we strike camp on the eve of battle, you will sleep in this mud hole here - he will sleep in the one right next to you."
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail: email@example.com.