Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

The military: a world apart

No matter your opinion of the author and his perspective, this rather long article is well worth the time spent reading it, for it offers an invaluable corrective to certain myths and misapprehensions about today’s “all-volunteer” U.S. military, as presented by a Marine who spent four tours in Iraq.

Wal-Mart with 'yellow ribbon' sign

Corporate citizen Wal-Mart displays a “yellow ribbon” sign.
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There’s a lot in this article, but if there is any observation in it that particularly commends itself to attention, it is the reality of such a standing army: its composition, its relations to the civilian world, and its combat characteristics over time as wars drag on. It is naively assumed that a “professional” volunteer force will represent a sort of cross-section of the society for which it fights, but this is far from true, as this article attests and my own experience confirms. From this disparity many consequences flow.

That the cultural and political background of the soldier is distinctive is not really surprising: Like the author, many military personnel have a family tradition of enlisting and a strong element of patriotism. Unlike him, however, most are also politically conservative; I cannot confirm the author’s estimate as to the ratio of right- to left-leaning, but I have no doubt of the essential fact — particularly as it applies to the officer corps.

Just how powerful the pressure for political conformity can be was brought home to me one day in 1989 when I was at a unit meeting on weekend Naval Reserve drills. The preceding discussion had been about racial and sexual prejudices and how to overcome them, and a commander spoke up: “I really do think women can do essentially everything that men can, and should have the chance. In that sense, I’ve always believed in equal rights for women.”

He then looked diffidently around the room, as if for approval, and rather hurriedly added, “Other than that, though, I’m pretty right-wing.” Thereafter, he sat in obviously abashed silence.

But there is a far more central fact about our “volunteer” military that we must never forget: Most of these “volunteers” really had very little practical choice. With jobs ever scarcer and offering ever less of security, pay and benefits, many people from poor families — particularly those who can’t afford college — find the offers made by military recruiters too attractive to pass up. Their “choice”: the security and predictability of the military versus a civilian life dragged out in poverty, stagnation and hopelessness. That they may be killed or suffer life-blasting physical or mental harm is a fact of which they are necessarily aware, but which for the sake of mental peace they sequester from active consciousness.

In times of relative peace, these economic conscripts are held to standards that assure them at least some chance of coming out unshattered, but as wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan drag down through years and decades, new “volunteers” are pressed into service whom the military would otherwise disqualify. As a result, combat readiness declines and casualties escalate.

Meanwhile, thanks to their economic, cultural and political divergence from more affluent and liberal civilian society, soldiers are often alienated from that society. Lauded while on the front as part of “the troops” for whom politicians never miss an opportunity to aver their undying support, they all too often return to a country that doesn’t much care what they’ve endured on its behalf and makes few provisions for their needs.

Perhaps it really is time to reinstitute the draft. Like the opening of windows in a room long sealed, it will revive all within by mixing in fresh air from without and releasing stale gases. And if it is done right this time, it will also send to the front the sons and daughters of the powerful politicians and lobbyists at whose behest our wars are fought.

Originally published as a review of a blog post about the state of the “all-volunteer” military.

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