Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Their Kids Go to Yale, Our Kids Go To The Army (Or Jail)

Memorial Day always produces a lot of treacly sentiment around "humble gratitude for those who sacrifice" et cetera. But this year, one of the most impactful essays I've read in a long time appeared on the New York Times Op-Ed page co-authored by Karl Eikenberry, who commanded the U.S. military in Afghanistan '05-'07. "Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart" probably made such an impression on me because I live in one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the union, surrounded by pumped up expressions of patriotism everywhere, and public schools crawling with veterans and recruiters.

In this context I was stunned by the news of how very, very small a portion of the U.S. population actually goes into the military these days. According to Eikenberry and co-author David Brooks, a Stanford history professor:
For nearly two generations, no American has been obligated to join up, and few do. Less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in the armed forces, compared with more than 12 percent during World War II. 
Stunned because I am surrounded every day of the year by in-school advertising for the military, front page "news" lavishing praise on anything vaguely military, and so-called progressive and moderate representatives in Congress that salivate visibly over opportunities to appear supporting the military.

So my perception of how steeped in militarism my culture has become is mostly the product of information management, and does not reflect reality.

Eikenberry and Brooks (who also writes U.S. history textbooks) point out how very unequal is the toll exacted by militarism, depending on your zip code.

Even fewer of the privileged and powerful shoulder arms. In 1975, 70 percent of members of Congress had some military service; today, just 20 percent do, and only a handful of their children are in uniform. 
In sharp contrast, so many officers have sons and daughters serving that they speak, with pride and anxiety, about war as a “family business.” 
Few have written more eloquently about the cost of doing this kind of business than Andrew Bacevich, another professor and career army officer, who lost his son to the war on Iraq. His recent essay on naming wars is especially worth reading.

Bacevich's experience supports the old adage that a commander-in-chief who has never seen combat is not one you want with his finger on the "send" button that deploys your sons and daughters to fight for fossil fuel access halfway around the planet.

Even -- or perhaps especially -- those devoted to the nation are concerned about the long term prospects for a standing military no longer answerable to we, the people. They are concerned about the distancing effects of killing by remote control, and they worry about
a self-perpetuating military caste, sharply segregated from the larger society and with its enlisted ranks disproportionately recruited from the disadvantaged. History suggests that such scenarios don’t end well.
History also suggests that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, and so it is vitally important to keep churning out cheap patriotism symbols and press releases. And to shout down as unpatriotic those who speak up to object.

Amy Goodman in her "Another Memorial Day In This Endless War" essay for Democracy Now! quoted one of the original thinkers of our revolt against the British empire and its taxing authority:
Thomas Paine wrote in the March 21, 1778, edition of his pamphlet The Crisis, “If there is a sin superior to every other, it is that of willful and offensive war ... he who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”
Quietly bleeds it, off stage, in the 21st century.

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