Sunday, March 18, 2012

Who Serves


At last, we have begun to move along.  This week I want to throw out a few thoughts dealing with our people in the military.  Once, when things seemed a lot simpler than they do today, I was one of them.  From 1957 to 1959 I soldiered as a Private First Class in the Fourth Armored Division, part of the Seventh Army, on station in what was then West Germany.
Service in the military came naturally in my family:  my mother's older brother had been a battle surgeon in a sort of MASH unit in the trenches of the Marne during World War I, a hectic butcher-shop operation that taught him enough about the physiology of the heart to inaugurate a great career as a coronary pioneer.  My father's kid brother was the bombadier and navigator who trained the crew of the Enola Gay.  My mother ran the Home Service Division of the Red Cross in Minneapolis throughout World War II.  We stepped up.

My turn came along when the Cold War was chilliest. The draft was universal.  I got through college, and even a couple of years in Central Europe, initially as a Fulbright Student, but the inevitable Greetings caught up with me in Southern Spain.  I underwent Basic Training at Fort Hood, Texas.  Throughout the following winter I served in Germany as the team chief of an Angry 26, a rolling trip-wire communications unit mounted on the back of a standard deuce-and-a-half truck and camouflaged  in the woodlands on the edge of the Grafenwohr Training Grounds along the Czech border.  We could listen to the artillery of the Red Army, just across the frontier.  As an Acting Sergeant I was in charge of a squad of smart but incorrigible reprobates, a headstrong Mexican-American telegrapher, a street-smart Puerto-Rican interested mostly in running a numbers game back at the post, and a teenaged black pickpocket from Detroit.  The trick was getting them back to base with nobody landing in the stockade.

After two years I got my discharge in Europe and settled down in the Austrian Alps to try and write a book.  In early 1961 I returned to the United States just as the Kennedy administration was settling in.  By the time JFK got shot we were already knee-deep in Viet Nam.  My wife and I found a cheap -- rent-controlled -- apartment in Brooklyn Heights.

Once Lyndon Johnson took over, the American commitment to the war deepened:  at one point 600,000 of our troops were bogged down there, draftees mostly.  I myself gradually became aware that the deferment pattern among the generation at risk, always skewed to favor the ownership classes -- whose children stayed in graduate school or had big families early to avoid service -- was turning into an unreported scandal. One of the first pieces I got published was an essay for the liberal New Leader entitled "Our Unlucky Minority Army."  Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, a man of vision and conviction and an opponent of LBJ, gave me a lot of help.

 A disproportionate number of blacks were among the casualties. My wife and I had resettled into a crossroads village in New Hampshire:  it was painfully evident that the local draft was pulling in the offspring of the working poor, youngsters with no recourse and no connections to keep them out.  They returned badly damaged in most cases.  I remember long sessions with one youngster who had worked for me from time to time, put in his years as a platoon leader in the Vietnamese jungles, and returned with a roaring heroin habit.  I spent many evenings weaning him back onto Bourbon.  He got a sort of job, in the end, along with a life-long disability payment.

By then I was interested in -- writing about -- the early career of Edward Kennedy.  I detail all this in  Edward Kennedy:  An Intimate Biography.  Tossed out of Harvard for cheating, Kennedy had tried to make amends by serving in the Army in France.  He too recognized that the system was increasingly unfair, that combat exposure was turning into a matter of who you were, who you knew.  Typically, Kennedy didn't attempt to butt heads with the administration directly -- he was already sabotaging the poll tax laws and putting together immigration  reform boilerplate for the president behind the scenes.  But he was successful in getting a great many of the draft exemptions and eligibility requirements eliminated and/or redefined.  Pretty soon the children  of the Country Club Crowd were getting their draft notices.  A few started getting shot up; some actually got killed.  Society activists like Silver Star winner John Kerry started speaking at veterans' rallies against the war itself.  Richard Nixon found himself forced to "Vietnamize" the struggle, cut way back on troop deployments, in the end simply cut and run.  Combat was much too dangerous for the propertied classes, the major political contributors wouldn't put up with it.

At unacknowledged policy levels, one revelation that had been hanging there since the First World War was that modern full-scale mass warfare, with entire populations involved, was ultimately ruinous to established societies.  Whole graduating classes from Oxford and Cambridge had been blown to pieces in the trenches of World War I; the effective collapse of the British Empire during subsequent decades was privately  attributed to the destruction of that leadership generation.  The loss of a generation of educated leaders in Germany no doubt led immediately to the barbarism of Nazism.  With weaponry more sophisticated every decade, all these apprehensions converged in the behind-the-scenes decision to "professionalize" the military.  The answer would be a volunteer army, small but superbly trained, available to jump in and fight any battles the politicians might decide to undertake. 

That made it easer, of course, to invade and bomb and authorize a "police action" just short of technical war.  Or go to war itself, if under another name.  Easier to get in.

But harder, it would develop, to get out.  The habitual projection of power is numbing, hallucinogenic.  We cruise on fantasies.

All this led directly to the tragedy of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who shot up 16 Afghan civilians and may well have ended our longest war.  Next time, what that really means.


Burton Hersh



  1. Wow, more than I ever knew about the inner Burton Hersh, plus a well-thought-out segue to Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. This is good stuff! -Springtime in Bradford

  2. This is a very compelling post. I recall trying to explain to my son at aged five how "The War" was not a place. It was during the Clinton Presidency when our forces seemed to be dispatched into world police actions without clear goals and seemingly always in reaction to war crimes and tragedy that might otherwise have been prevented if only first world nations stepped in earlier. My boy thought that war was a place, something permanent like a nation. Fast forward to Afghanistan and Iraq where deployment is at least called by its name: war.


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