Tuesday, June 06, 2006

We Support the Troops...But the Military is Not for Our Kind.

I just finished reading a book titled AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service---and How It Hurts Our Country. It was written by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer, two authors that are also the wife and father respectively of military men serving overseas in Iraq. Both authors state from the outset that they were the product of upper-middle class upbringing and were clearly not ready to deal with the challenges of having a loved one serving in the armed forces. Roth-Douquet is a veteran of every presidential campaign for the past 20 years and most recently served in President Clinton's White House and the Department of Defense. Her husband has served two tours in Iraq. Schaeffer is the father of a former Marine and has written three nonfiction books about the military.

The premise of this book is the ongoing problem that today's armed forces are increasingly being manned by working and lower middle class men and women while the upper classes and elites are absenting themselves from military service. Even more telling, more and more state and federal elected officials are serving in government not having spent any time in the military as well as not having any military age sons or daughters in the services. The authors maintain that the status quo is harming our country because it is causing a large gap between the civilian and military worlds where both sides are looking at the other and not necessarily liking what they see.

Much of this problem started around the time of the Vietnam War when the draft was in full swing. Those who could afford to send their kids to college or get any number of different types of deferments to stay out of the military went ahead and took advantage of these loopholes, while the poor and working classes were swept up in the draft and sent off to war. The fact that the Vietnam war went badly didn't help the situation and the many reports from the media about drug usage and insubordination by soldiers only confirmed the thoughts of many that the quality of soldier that was entering the service was at an all time low and that any person who had "decent breeding" or had "better opportunities" should stay away from military service. Once the war was over and the draft was lifted, creating the All-Volunteer Army, what incentive was there for affluent families to add military service to their list of post- high school options for their children?

Today, many of the people who were able to dodge the draft back in the Sixties and Seventies are policy makers and power brokers who can shape public opinion about the military and its role. And they have used their power to discourage graduating students from considering military service. Because of recent successes in forbidding military recruiters from visiting private and elite high schools and the disbanding of ROTC at many Ivy League caliber colleges, high schoolers and college age kids who attended these elite institutions are not only not being informed about what the Armed Forces are about, they are being fed negative information about the services that is not entirely true. Most of the faculty members of the schools have a dim view of the military and will go all out to steer their students away from even considering the service as an option. They think that the choice of military service over college is a waste of intelligence and a life that could be used for much more. There exists an attitude in this country that debunks President Kennedy's famous quote "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what can you do for your country" More and more members of the elite classes are feeling that they do not have to contribute to the service to the nation, that it is all right to take from the country and not give back in return. I guess they feel that merely paying taxes is enough. It's so ironic that those who have benefited the most from living in these United States are also the ones who are least likely to feel any need to give back to the country. A classic example is the basis of the title of this piece. According to a Pittsburgh Post Gazette article dated August 11, 2005, a Marine recruiter went to a home of a high school student who was interested in the Marine Reserves to discuss what the Marines can offer. The home was located in a very affluent section of the Northern suburbs of Pittsburgh, and had two American flags on the lawn. The woman who answered the door had a shirt on which had an American flag printed on it. She remarked that she supported the troops, but she then said that military service was not for her son, not for "our kind of people." I wonder if this woman even had a clue that she was talking out of both sides of her mouth. One can go into the enclaves of the well off and see SUV's with American flags and 'Support Our Troops' ribbons and bumper stickers all over them, but if you ask the owners if they know anyone in their circle of friends and acquaintances with family in the armed forces, or if they themselves would consider military service for their children, they would look at you as if you had insulted their mother.

The authors also go on to explain that one of the disadvantages of the upper classes not serving in the military is that these people would 1) not have the opportunity to meet people who are different from them, which limits their ability to function in an increasingly diverse society, thereby placing them in a reverse ghetto situation. And also 2) would deprive the youth of those classes the chance to truly understand what it means to be a citizen of America and the attendant responsibilities that come with the rights they so vigorously claim to cherish. This widening gap has also affected the military in that many of its people have developed an attitude that military life is superior to civilian life and that they look askance at civilians and would rather mingle with their own.

Some of the complaints that upper class people have about the military are that it somehow stifles critical and creative thinking and fosters an attitude of " The Right Way, The Wrong Way, and the (insert branch of service) Way. I'll be the first to say that the military has a rigid structure and perfers to use orderly prescribed procedures to get things done, but in battle, more often than not, the plan goes to shit in the first five minutes and out-of-box thinking is needed if the mission is to be a success. This is especially true in the more elite fighting forces which use smaller more highly trained units that are better adapted to more unorthodox procedures. Upper class people also think that military people aren't the most intelligent people, otherwise they'd have gone to college. I've been in the service and gone to college, and I can tell you that some of the smartest people I have ever known were wearing Navy Blue, and the some of the dumbest people I knew were wearing Robert Morris Blue. I knew for a fact that I was not ready for college right out of high school, I needed the maturing and seasoning that the Navy provided, so when I decided to make the college move, it was much easier and I had sucess.

Military service provides an unparallelled opportunity to learn how to lead people under pressure, to make decisions that have far reaching effects, and to place immense responsibility in the hands of young adults very early in their lives. How many college sophomores have the opportunity to steer a 95,000 ton multi billion dollar aircraft carrier with 100 planes and 5000+ sailors on board, or operate state of the art computer systems and weapons platforms? How may kids working in Starbucks can say they've operated nuclear reactors, or maintained jet aircraft that can travel twice the speed of sound? How many frat boys can say they have traveled all over the world and seen places their buddies couldn't even find on a map, much less have ever seen? You can't do that kind of stuff sitting in a college classroom during a brain-numbing economics lecture. I'm not saying life in our Armed Forces is all glitz and glamour. There are long hours in miserable conditions, the pay isn't great, it helps if you're not married, because unit operational schedules can change on a moments notice. Like the civilian world, are good and bad bosses, and every workspace has its assholes and idiots, and unfortunately, there is always the possibility that if you are sent to war, you can come back injured or in a body bag. I could never be a recruiter because I believe in telling people the good, the bad and the ugly when talking about military service. It's NOT for everyone. If you have authority issues, if you aren't the kind of person who does well in a team environment, if you like lots of stability in your life, and you can't handle long periods of separation, and you aren't willing to change any of the aspects I just mentioned, DON'T JOIN THE MILITARY!!! You're just wasting your time and the Armed Forces time and money.

The Authors conclude with a debate as to how to get the upper classes to join the military. Frank Schaeffer prefers a kind of draft of all American young people with deferments only for the most severe of injuries. He also advocates not only military but civilian national service. Kathy Roth -Duquet prefers not to draft affluent young people but merely ask them to join maintaining that if these kids knew what military service was about and actually met military people, they could see that there are benefits to military life. There are also other options such as a National Service Lottery that includes all but the most injured, which those selected could choose either military or civilian service and that the length of service would be no longer than 18 months. Another plan would have mandatory service with greater benefits to those who chose to serve a longer military tour of duty, whilst those who chose a civilian service would only have to serve one year stateside with less benefits. The final plan offered is one where a force of federally armed guards could be mustered to provide protection for dams, power plants, sports complexes, and other sensitive, noncombat areas, thereby freeing up the military and other public service units (police, fire, etc) to do what it is they are trained to do and that is to engage in combat.

I wouldn't have a problem with some sort of national service. Give people a choice of military or civilian service. Make the initial tour of duty no more than 15-18 months, and provide things like the GI Bill, tuition repayment, and other enticements. I'm not sure that this should take the form of a draft, but I do think that it is important that ALL Americans understand that the duties and responsibilities rendering service to the nation must be shared by ALL Americans and not just the less fortunate.




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