Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Who Serves III


To the ramparts, again.  I really hadn't intended to go another round with the issue of how we pick our regular military, who gets picked, and what constitutes the fallout from our hit-and-run approach to meeting our requirements.  But this is important.  The way we use our volunteer military reflects a great deal that has gone unattended vis-a-vis the seismic sociological shifts that are collapsing our middle class.

Most of the people who got back to me tended to agree with my overall conclusions.  Several did not.  One friend of many, many years roared back in gigantic block letters, irate that I seemed to have said that "all the blue-collar men and women who enlist in the services are low-life misfits...."  Any reasonable reading of my last blog couldn't really have suggested that I thought anything like that.  What I did say was that a dangerous percentage of today's enlistees come into the services unprepared for the strains of military life -- let alone the acute stresses of combat exposure, often throughout repeated deployments.  Many come from problem families, others are offered the choice between jail and a hitch in the service,  few have the life experience or the sophistication to deal with the recurrent traumas that build up after months spent contending with angry tribesmen and revenge-seeking native trainees.  Profound animosities build up on both sides, passing incidents trigger explosions, and before long the Iraqis are telling us to clear out whatever the risks and the Afghans are refusing to let our trainers "embed" themselves in the native units we are supposed to be preparing to take the country over.

Many of my apprehensions are shared by the senior American military I've known over the years.  If we are going to continue to back ourselves into "nation-building" we had better develop a cadre of seasoned advisors conditioned for the role, not green GIs.  For what it's worth, perhaps I should elaborate here on a few details from my own experience.  After that first winter in Germany as the team chief of a radio unit on the Czech border, I was pulled back into the Civil Affairs Section of the Fourth Armored Division and designated a clerk and translator -- my German was very fluent then after my years as a Fulbright student.  My responsibilities ran from explaining to an outraged Buergermeister why some beered-up GI had tossed a fragmentation grenade into the lounge of the neighboring Gasthaus or driven his tank up the courthouse steps to interpreting at murder trials throughout the Republik to translating top-secret NATO documents.

My point here is that we too had incidents to contend with, but because we were a conscript army there were individuals like me available within the military qualified to work with the local people, smooth things over, keep atrocities in perspective.  My wife and I lived "on the economy," upstairs of a German family with whom we became close friends.  A lot of Germany still lay in rubble, but such informal relationships helped assuage the animosities from the -- then -- quite recent and devastating bombing.

No doubt the sort of work I did then is done today by "contractors," who have been hired at tremendous expense to the American taxpayer to perform touchy services like guarding diplomats and pulling perimeter guard, normally standard military obligations.  These people -- sometimes imports, sometimes retired military -- now serve in numbers that nearly approximate the active-duty personnel in the combat areas and remain utterly sequestered from the native populations, for their own protection.  Where city-size airfields are being built, KBR and other huge contractors bring in their own "blue-collar men and women" and make sure they are adequately secured.  Whether we intend to project ourselves as such or not, we continue to be perceived as occupiers.

As the technology of war advances, and a team in a bunker in Kansas operates a drone in Yemen that takes out a car full of Arabs we are pretty sure support Al Qaeda, it may be time to contemplate deep-seated changes.  If we want a space-age, electronic army we should no doubt stand prepared to support one.  The two-tier model, with a sergeant pulling in $40,000 a year and his contractor counterpart signing on for $200,000, probably ought to be replaced by an integrated organization in which everybody who joins is held to high standards of background and competence, paid accordingly, and sent to war only after both the Congress and the Executive Branch conclude war is the only option.  Everybody would recognize that the stakes are high, the blue-collar/white collar distinction would be meaningless, and everybody would be prepared to pay the price.

Perhaps with his own children.  Perhaps we need a draft again.  My Selective Service Board has my number.  I'm ready.


Burton Hersh 


  1. Is Imperialism so different from Nation Building?

    Roman legionnaires in Gaul and Albion, Crusaders in Constantinople, British regulars in Bombay, U.S. Marines in the Phillipines: were not these each a "nation building" deployment comprising soldiers conscripted to serve their country?

    Is our engagement in "nation building" to serve our national interest really any different than the putting a state's force into a foreign land to secure vital resources?

    And is that so wrong?

  2. Our engagement in nation building is indeed so wrong. Look at the death and destruction that IS happening and weigh it against the forwarding of health and productivity that IS NOT happening and you will easily see this is not working to the benefit of human progress.

    It apparently does work toward someone's benefit but what an insignificant number that is.


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