In 1999, with war sweeping through the wreckage of what was once Yugoslavia, I bobbled my three-year old son Matthew on my knee as together we watched a television newscast that quite unexpectedly began broadcasting images of a burned-out civilian bus that had been accidentally targeted by a NATO missile. Matthew was too young to be upset by any of this, but I was upset in the way that a new parent is upset whenever certain, harsh realities intrude upon their children. I was still at that early phase of parenthood that had me marveling at the length of Matthew’s eye lashes, the crystal depth of his hazel-brown eyes, and the soft feel of his feet and hands. He was everything lovely and innocent in a child and I just couldn’t square that innocence with the horror unfolding in front of us on that TV screen. What I felt was shame and embarrassment, as if I or my adult world had been found out, and revealed in its immorality and imperfection. And looking at Matthew, I wondered how I could ever “explain” any of this to him.
A few short years later our country found itself involved, yet again, in another war, the conflict in Iraq. As was my habit at the time, I would go at dusk to sit in the wooden stands down in the Arroyo where a cool breeze seemed always to gather no matter how hot the day, and together with several other fathers, watch our sons play baseball. The smiles were always easy, the banter good-natured and generous, the kind of peaceful, small-town ritual that gives small towns and fathers a good name. I don’t think any of us sitting there in that golden light ever imagined that our young boys who were only 9 or 10 at the time could possibly be exposed to the fighting in Iraq, but five or six years later as the conflict dragged on, that notion was no longer an abstraction. I knew at least one, slightly older boy who had joined the National Guard seeking direction and benefits only to find himself facing live-fire in Iraq. And though I never asked, I often wondered, which of those fathers who had watched on countless nights their sons running, throwing and gliding across grassy fields would press for their sons to fight in Iraq? Who among those fathers would not literally move a mountain to keep their sons safe and away from the killing ground of that war?
As an American citizen, I am certainly aware of the point of view that represents war as a regrettable necessity in an imperfect world. I would not argue that the flawed and aggressive history of mankind has not been steeped in war, but I would never celebrate any of the so called virtues of war without first acknowledging that at its core, no matter what the cause or justification, war represents not the greatest test and virtue of mankind, but its greatest failure. That being said, I would also never advocate for the unilateral disarmament of our nation, which must, after all, and despite its best inclinations, exist in a world that largely rejects my premise, celebrates military prowess, and tends to war at will.
But there is, at least for me, a rub. If in a democratic society the people, who are not compelled to fight by a dictator or by laws not of their making, embrace war as an acceptable means for the settling of disputes among nations, then those same people cannot in good conscience hold that position without simultaneously and assertively making themselves and their children available to fight. In our democracy the current arrangement of an all volunteer army is not an appropriate instrument for fighting wars of our choosing. Rather, it is a convenient and immoral act of self-deceit, which enhances rather than deters the possibility of future wars. It does so by placing the vast majority of citizens at a comfortable distance from the bloody effects of the war policies they support. And it does so by undemocratically distributing the pain and suffering of war among a willing, yes, but unacceptably small segment of our society. In the roughly ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, fewer than 1% of the adult population of the United States has participated in the fighting.
The military establishment expresses almost universal support for the all volunteer army. And this is understandable. Tasked with the job of recruiting, training and deploying soldiers, who would not prefer a force of motivated, relatively un-conflicted volunteers? It makes their job easier, cheaper and arguably more inclined toward success. Their position is similar to that of teachers who face a mandate to educate, promote and successfully test out students - wouldn’t they also prefer and benefit from “recruiting” an all volunteer class of motivated students? In both cases, however, there are larger principles at stake that outweigh narrow interests and institutional expediency. A teacher’s preference for screened students (and the implied success associated with such screening) does not conform with the educational and democratic mission of America’s public schools, which must educate all citizens no matter what their individual level of talent, intellect and motivation. These principles are a reflection of core, longstanding American values. The same holds true of the military. In a purely logical sense the military may see the practical advantages of an all volunteer army (ease of recruitment, training, deployment) without ever plotting those advantages against the broader, more meaningful, philosophical framework of America. That framework includes notions of fairness and shared sacrifice. Simply put, Americans do not let others do their dirty work. They don’t espouse policies and points of view without demonstrating a concrete willingness to actively support those positions, which in this case means embracing rather than evading the primal duty of war - fighting.
There is, I fear, a cynical explanation for much of this. The military industrial complex described warningly by President Eisenhower in 1961 is too much served by war. And it isn’t clear to me, at least in my lifetime, that this complex of soldiers and industry are as dedicated to eliminating war as an acceptable means to national ends as they are to remaining the necessary cog in the wheel of war. War is their function and duty. This entrenched war-structure also knows something. It knows that modern, free, and educated societies like the one we have in America have grown increasingly averse to war.
Modern media, starting perhaps with Mathew Brady’s Civil War photography, has gradually torn down the curtain and mythology of glorious war, and replaced it instead with a hard, brutal, unrelenting truth. A truth that is hard to erase or refine. A truth that makes it increasingly difficult to engage and motivate citizen populations into accepting and participating in war, especially war that might involve their sons and daughters. It’s ever so much easier to press the war policy button and “sell” a 1% subset of the population as opposed to the 99%, especially if elements of that 1% face uncertain educational and economic futures. It’s a side issue to what I am arguing here, but if anybody doubts the subtly exploitative nature of the all volunteer military, just look at the Dream Act - in this case, the people of the United States, not wishing to actually fight themselves, have come up with an arrangement that offers citizenship to “unauthorized immigrants” (who tend to occupy the lowest economic quintiles) who volunteer to enlist in the military. In other words, you can become one of us, but only if you first take the up-front risk of possibly fighting and dieing in our wars. Awfully big of us don’t you think?
There is also another truth that I see no sense in denying. For the vast majority of Americans war has become an abstraction. Unlike the populations of Europe who saw and felt the literal destruction of their communities, cities and homes, not once, but twice in the previous century, Americans have been virtually untouched by the actual, physically destructive nature of war. Sitting on one’s couch watching Wolff Blitzer describe the video-game-like destruction unfolding “over there” does not deliver the same, real dose of war as lets say seeing your school bombed, your street set afire, your neighbors incinerated. Ours is an insulated relationship to war, and my concern is that the vast majority of Americans, with no skin in the game and no exposure to the real impact of war, increasingly accept the notion of war with a sense of ease incongruent with war’s true product and residue, which is mayhem and death. Combine that distance to war with an all volunteer army, and what you create is an environment that further enables acceptance, and a turning away in the face of war. I only hope that acceptance does not turn into an actual liking, but who knows? People tend to like what they are good at, especially if there is no risk to them in the liking.
Which returns me to my fellow fathers. Knowing the goodness in their hearts, I cannot imagine any of them as bombastic supporters of war. But knowing the depth of their love for their sons, I cannot imagine any of them refuting the all volunteer army, which gives them, and their sons, an out. And that is the problem. In the face of war, the all volunteer army renders them and us passive observers. An all volunteer army lets Americans off the hook. We know it, and unfortunately we like it that way.