Back in the hoary days of my youth, the concept of sacrifice was deeply intertwined with the concept of war, and it was very much a double-edged sword: That is to say that the sacrifices made by men and women in uniform would be matched by sacrifices at home.
That certainly was the case with the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the two world wars, and the latter included strict rationing of everything from gasoline to aluminum to sugar and nylon stockings.
But a funny thing happened in the post-9/11 world of warfare. Although the U.S. faced arguably the greatest threat since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, we weren't asked to match the sacrifices of the troops in Afghanistan and then Iraq by doing with less at home.
In fact, President Bush avoided any mention of sacrifice except in the most oblique terms, and defying the laws of economics pushed through a massive tax cut for the wealthy. No less blood was spent on the battlefield, but the modest budget surplus that he inherited soon mushroomed into an enormous deficit.
The inherent unfairness of expecting troops to sacrifice but not civilians is driven home by the fact that fewer than 1 percent of the population is in uniform absent a draft that supplied many of the troops in Korea and Vietnam.
Interestingly -- or perhaps inevitably -- President Obama used the word "sacrifice" only twice in his prime-time speech on the war in Afghanistan at West Point last week:
"Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents and great-grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs."
"In the end, our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms . . . [but] from the men and women in uniform who are part of an unbroken line of sacrifice that has made government of the people, by the people, and for the people a reality on this Earth."
Bush's aversion to sacrifice at home was driven by the political necessity of keeping Americans as far away from the realities of an immoral and profoundly botched war, hence a policies such as prohibiting photographs of flag-draped coffins being carried off of transport planes at Dover Air Force Base.
Obama isn't averse to the concept of sacrifice. Indeed, he has invoked it often in making the case for his agenda even if it wasn't uttered at West Point except in the context of the troops.
But the American people are averse to the concept.
Perhaps the president has realized that because his predecessor sold them a bill of goods for an unnecessary war and rendered a necessary war unwinnable by starving it of boots and resources, it's a little late in the day to ask them to sacrifice, especially when so many are out of work, foreclosed and are living the American Dream Deferred.