Monday, March 26, 2012

Who Serves II


Back after it, telling truth to the preoccupied.  Another look this time at who we pick for our military, how we pick them, and how that all comes out.

My first outbreak on this subject brought down a surprising amount of commentary.  Except for one furtive and congenitally truculent New Hampshire connection -- "Anonymous" -- , who seemed to be surprised that I had a life before I began instructing him in the niceties of modern tennis, the remarks were appreciative.  The veteran radio jock Barry Farber e-mailed me at once and we covered a lot of historical ground on his national show for an hour.  Barry felt that I had retained a lot of brain function, for a liberal.

At the heart of my inquiry here was what the so-called "military obligation" has turned into.  The fact is, I no doubt served in the military because I had to.  From 1940 on, young men in the United States automatically became draft-eligible, and, with the Cold War following on immediately after 1945, a sizable percentage of my generation served.  Once Viet Nam closed over us in 1963-1964 the process intensified, although the deferment game gradually became an issue, as I indicated in my last blog.

The draft was so bitterly resented once we had given it up in Southeast Asia that the regular military was professionalized.  There was no ongoing draft.  Instead, the services attempted to recruit individuals their leaderships hoped they could turn into competent personnel.  Watching all this evolve from our homes in New Hampshire and D.C. and, more recently, Florida, on the neighborhood level, it couldn't have been more apparent that a great many of the kids getting enticed into service were volunteering as a last resort.  There were a lot of high-school drop-outs, youngsters otherwise headed to prison and offered a last-minute choice by some municipal judge, knockabouts with drug problems.  Their peers from solider backgrounds were moving on to colleges and graduate schools, law practices, brokerage offices.

For going on two decades this seemed to be working out because whatever military engagements we got caught up in tended to be quick and dirty -- the intervention in Panama,  Desert Storm, the aerial war against Serbia.  In and out, flatten out the heathen, declare victory and return the national focus fast to getting and spending.  The genuine crisis arrived with the invasion of Iraq, which -- like Viet Nam -- started out as a glorified support action and turned quickly into a bona-fide big league donnybrook, a misguided attempt to muscle our preferences out of a full-scale civil war.  Along with our benighted involvement in Afghanistan -- where we pushed in and left and returned and now are desperate to find some excuse to leave again -- the wars of the last ten years unexpectantly turned expensive, touchy, politically unmanageable, both on the battlefield and around our country.  The effort to cook the numbers by bringing in hundreds of thousands of highly paid "contractors" would show up fast enough in our deficit figures.
The perhaps 2 and a half million soldiers who were feeding in and out of these high-stress battlefields, most of them on "multiple deployments," were too often in no way psychologically equipped to undergo this repeated strain. Many of them cracked, too much "dwell time," as the jargon phrases it, and the catch-all term "post-traumatic stress disorder," the successor to "shell shock," was concocted to cover a wide range of fundamentally undiagnosable explosions of violence.  Nobody was willing to face this, but a lot of the misery stemmed from shortcomings of background and class.  You fill an army with the misfits of a generation, and pretty soon a lot of them are pissing on Taliban corpses and staging the festivities at Abu Graib and slipping out on a quiet evening to blow away some extended Afghan family.  Statistics surfaced recently indicating that more GIs have killed themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last year than have died in combat.  An even greater percentage offed themselves stateside.  With these propensities, it's not that hard for the wrong body of enlisted personnel to undo whatever the commanders thought they were accomplishing.

Recently retired Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked on the way out that any future leader in his position who attempted to send an American land army to the Middle East "ought to have his head examined." Not that his opinion has slowed down the likes of Senator McCain, who has been pumping all winter to get those boots onto the ground in Syria.  Hilary Clinton pushed for American troops to lead the charge into Libya. We are historically slow learners.

Send in the boys! The problem is always:  Whose boys?  Which boys and girls are we supposed to send next time, and in whose interests?  If we would think this through the next time we find ourselves tempted to jump, we might survive a few more years as an empire.

Cheerful, no?

Burton Hersh 


  1. So it goes in the legions of the Pax Americanus. It's hard to concentrate on chronic problems when Scalito and the Supremes are marshalling to nullify health care reform. "Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?". -Knockedabout

  2. Ceteris paribus, we are each and all no doubt protected by those who volunteer; from whom and what degree of peril may be debatable.

    As a community, we need to be mindful of our continuing obligation to care for the damaged bodies and minds that return from service, no matter if the soldiers/sailors/airmen are pressed into service or sign up of their own volition.

    As a society we should also pay close attention to the capacity and character of those we enlist to avoid the double jeopardy of putting those more vulnerable and those more inclined toviolent anti-social behavior into a new class of long-term care PTSD wards of the state.

    I am for drones, paint them Republican red or Democrat blue, paint them anarchist black, or evangelical white. Let the drones buzz on high, in various concentric circles focused on those who may scheme to harm our people, our friends, or our interests. Drones are preferable to fighting a social war with better trained legionnaires whose single pint of blood spilt is worth more than the hearts and minds of an entire village of elders whose wives and daughters are enslaved.

    All to protect the lives and liberties of people who seem to focus only on what's in it for them or worse the latests doings of an increasingly insipid but decreasingly clad class of celebrities.

    Adios. I am tired and this game goes on too long.
    Antonius Bloch


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