"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Happy (belated) 230th Birthday

Yesterday, I considered taking a little (or a lot) of time to write something hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners, high-minded, and relevant about America's birthday and how far it's come (or regressed) in two hundred-odd years of existence. A few seconds of reconsideration made me realize that such an approach would be rather self-serving, given that, up to now, I've done little to advance America's survival apart from bouncing from one stateside military airfield to another for the last two years. I wouldn't call it wasted time, as it was all spent training to someday do my part to keep this country around a little longer. But training is all I've done thus far. The only shots I've heard fired are in the controlled environs of the rifle range, the only explosions I've seen, simulated ones on a live-fire course or aerial demonstration. In a few months, the training will be done and the real work will begin. So, yesterday, I kept my mouth shut and enjoyed a few of the freedoms that so many Americans, from 1776 until today, died to give me: the freedom to be with family, the freedom to travel where and when I want, the freedom to drift on a boat in the middle of a quiet lake, eat burgers and hot dogs, and not have to think about men and women bleeding to maintain that freedom thousands of miles away.

But today, having little else to do but unpack from my vacation, I'm feeling energetic enough to scribble down a few thoughts (nothing high-minded, I promise). On July 3rd, I finished reading a book that anyone with serious concerns about America's future should pick up:
AWOL : The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service -- and How It Hurts Our Country, by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer. Kathy describes herself as a "former agitator, feminist, Ivy Leaguer, Clintonite"; Frank, as an admittedly self-indulgent baby boomer who wanted "top college, good grades, smart jobs, wife/husband, Subaru/Volvo, membership at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, IRA started early, kids, college fund" for his children. The first is a stalwart Democrat, the second, a somewhat lapsed Republican. Both, however, have something in common: they were dragged from their sheltered upper class lives into the harsh world of military service by the choices of their loved ones. Kathy is married to a Marine; Frank, the father of one. This journey opened their eyes to a world of dedication and self-sacrifice. More importantly, it showed them how little those in their old social circles knew - or cared - about the warrior class that guarded their pampered way of life.

Kathy and Frank make many excellent points about the state of elite-military relations, and any summary I might attempt won't begin to do it justice. Just read it. The bottom line is that the decision-makers and opinion-shapers of this country have little to no connection with those in uniform, and this is a bad thing for both sides. It is also unprecedented in American history, as from the very beginning, Americans who dictated policy with the pen also knew how it felt to dictate it with a gun. George Washington went from young officer in the French and Indian War, to general in the Revolution, to president; he by no means stands alone. There was a time when the highest and lowest Americans wore the same uniform and shed the same blood. Professors fought, like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. A teacher of rhetoric at Bowdoin College in Maine, he took a sabbatical to fight for the Union during the Civil War, winning the Medal of Honor for bravery on Little Round Top at Gettysburg, receiving wounds in several engagements, and ultimately accepting Lee's surrender at Appomatox. Actors fought, like Jimmy Stewart, who during the course of World War II, flew 20 combat missions and served as a bomber squadron commander. Political leaders fought, like Bob Dole, so badly wounded fighting the Germans in Italy that his right arm was paralyzed for life, and John McCain, so thoroughly tortured at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors that he can't raise his arms above his head. The children of the elite fought as well, like Teddy Roosevelt Junior, who was gassed and wounded in World War I, who saw action in every European theater in World War II, who begged to be in the first waves of the D-Day invasion, who died in the field in France, and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Kathy and Frank sadly note that this is no longer the case today. The notion of repaying one's country for the blessings it bestows have been replaced by a narcissism that is obsessed with entitlement without responsibility. The elites of today no longer make the nation's welfare their personal business; they either consider military service simply another career choice (one not ambitious enough for them or their children), or view it with a mixture of pity, disdain, and outright hostility. Picturing today's elites in the shoes of their forefathers would be funny were it not so disheartening. Can you imagine Ward Churchill leading a bayonet charge? Can you see Sean Penn leaving the bubble of Hollywood life to put on a sweaty flightsuit and fly vital supplies to frontline troops? Can you picture a world where the Bush twins, the Kerry children, the sons and daughters of politicians and judges and law school presidents, volunteer to lead their fellow Americans in harm's way? The halls of Congress certainly have their share of blooded veterans, but they are ever fewer in number, and are not being replaced.

The outcome of all this is that those who lead in this country have forgotten what it means to serve, and those who serve are losing faith that their leaders truly support them. In the face of a determined and ruthless enemy, such a disconnect between the thinkers and the doers is dangerous; for the future of our social fabric, it could be disastrous. The cracks are there for everyone to see. The
great leaders that have arisen during each crisis this nation has faced seem fewer in number, or completely absent, today. Elites like Ward Churchill compare the victims of terror to Nazi executioners; politicians accuse our soldiers of "cold-blooded" murder (Murtha), "terrorizing women and children" (Kerry), and behaving like the thugs of Stalin and Pol Pot (Durbin); actors use their fame and fortunes to stage infantile hunger strikes (Penn and Sarandon) rather than provide concrete help (Gary Sinise) to the soldiers and innocent Iraqis they claim to support. And the press, one of the most influential arms of opinion-shaping in this country, seem to alternate between ignoring the efforts of our troops and actively undermining them. Be it exposing anti-terrorist programs with an arrogant disregard to how it might endanger America's citizens and soldiers, to ignoring or burying any positive stories about our troops' performance, to trumpeting allegations of massacre (frequently unsubstantiated, and in any event isolated and dealt with swiftly under the Uniform Code of Military Justice) while remaining silent about the vastly more numerous tales of heroism and personal sacrifice: the media may well be the most disconnected of all the elites from the men and women who die daily to protect their right to undermine, condemn, and slander.

This disconnect is, to put it mildly, unhealthy for both our cultural elites and the military. Frank and Kathy argue that the only way to bridge the divide is the institution of a national service program for all young Americans, with no exceptions. They debate between the two of them whether such a call to duty be mandatory or voluntary; but they agree that in whatever form, the call must be made. Up to this point, no one, from the president, to Congress, to editors, and to the rest who pay lip service to "supporting the troops", has made this request. In a time of war, this is inexcusable. Given the future perils that threaten this country and the world, it is morally reprehensible. We should not wait for a "popular" conflict for this call to emerge, as the threat posed by Iran and
North Korea could make the call several million lives too late. For the elites, having a personal connection to those in uniform would give them a taste of the hardships endured by the largely unelite military family. And, while it might not have any effect on when and where American troops are deployed, it would at least give them pause to consider whether the mission is worth the sacrifice. As for the elites who serve, the experience of leadership, teamwork, and shared sacrifice could only make this nation a healthier place. No longer would these virtues be restricted to classes who have little access to the corridors of power; they would spread to universities and corporations, to newspapers and film studios, all of whom sorely need lessons in humility, selflessness, and love of country.

So, after this 230th Fourth of July, my hope is that the powerful and privileged of this nation make that call; and when made, the powerful and privileged answer.

2 comments:

Ammianus Marcellinus said...

One of the Democratic Reps from New York put forth a call for a draft in the months after the invasion of Iraq, but that was more a political ploy then anything substantive.

Cincinnatus said...

I don't think a reinstatement of the draft would be possible at this point, at least not in its Vietnam-era form. However, a mandatory national service would be an easier sell, I think (or at least I hope, as I'm afraid some groups might feel this infringes on their God-given right to entitlement without responsibility). Various judicial authorities love to point at what other countries do; how about pointing at the fairly common European tradition of a year of military service for all youth? Here, one could choose between civil or military service; either way, we should at least pose the question to our youth.