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July 26, 2005

Uniform Sacrifice

I have been both busy and uninspired lately. Excuses, excuses.

There was a very interesting op-ed column in the New York Times yesterday - The Best Army We Can Buy, by Stanford professor David M. Kennedy. I know quite a few people serving in the military right now, so I found the column especially interesting.

It talks about the chasm that currently exists between the people who serve in the military and civilians, and then contrasts this with the way society and the military were interwoven in the past, especially during World War II:

Since the time of the ancient Greeks through the American Revolutionary War and well into the 20th century, the obligation to bear arms and the privileges of citizenship have been intimately linked. It was for the sake of that link between service and a full place in society that the founders were so invested in militias and so worried about standing armies, which Samuel Adams warned were "always dangerous to the liberties of the people."

Many African-Americans understood that link in the Civil War, and again in World Wars I and II, when they clamored for combat roles, which they saw as stepping stones to equal rights. From Aristotle's Athens to Machiavelli's Florence to Thomas Jefferson's Virginia and Robert Gould Shaw's Boston and beyond, the tradition of the citizen-soldier has served the indispensable purposes of sustaining civic engagement, protecting individual liberty - and guaranteeing political accountability.

That tradition has now been all but abandoned. A comparison with a prior generation's war illuminates the point. In World War II, the United States put some 16 million men and women into uniform. What's more, it mobilized the economic, social and psychological resources of the society down to the last factory, rail car, classroom and victory garden. World War II was a "total war." Waging it compelled the participation of all citizens and an enormous commitment of society's energies.

...The implications are deeply unsettling: history's most potent military force can now be put into the field by a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it does so. We can now wage war while putting at risk very few of our sons and daughters, none of whom is obliged to serve. Modern warfare lays no significant burdens on the larger body of citizens in whose name war is being waged.

That last paragraph rings especially true for me. I'm asked to sacrifice nothing - literally nothing - when my country wages war on others. If I didn't read the newspaper, watch television, or surf the internet I could conceivably know nothing about the armed conflict in Iraq. I'm not asked to give, because others are giving for me.

This isn't to say that I think there's something inherently romantic or, by definition, noble and honorable about serving in the military. For most people, it is a career choice. One that is far more risky and for obscenely lower pay (given that risk) in comparison to other occupations, but still - it's a choice. However, it is certainly a choice I'm not willing to make myself – I'm not willing to die so that people in Iraq may be free – so it is for that reason that I respect those who do.

I think, though, that if civilians were asked to make sacrifices in order to support and defend the interests of the country, that most of us would. But I can't imagine a scenario where modern U.S. society functions as a unit to support foreign policy. Well, I can - world war.

It's easy enough to say, "Well I don't agree with the policies of _insert name of President HERE_, so I'm not going to give up anything to support them." On the whole, I agree with that point of view. How else is a citizen supposed to make their views known, if not through the willingness to vocalize and act on dissent?

However, if it became plain that our own safety and way of life were threatened - not in oblique terms, like Iraq, but in concrete, quantifiable terms like 9/11 - I think people would pull together in ways that would rival the society back in the 1940s. But situations that are devoid of political jockeying (which is the P.R. problem that shadows Iraq) are few and far between.

I can't say that Saddam Hussein being ripped from power in Iraq makes me feel like it's less likely there will be another terrorist attack in the U.S. at some point. The U.S. military has done some wonderful things in Iraq on a humanitarian level, but the currency offered for progress there has been the blood and limbs of thousands of servicepeople. It's not for me to decide whether or not that sacrifice has been worth it, but I can't help but think that we should have gotten more in return for our tributes.

Instead, we're helping to build a country where the proposed constitution strips women of the right to choose their own husbands. How does that honor, especially, the female soldiers who have given their lives?

Perhaps we missed an opportunity after 9/11 to do something socially meaningful and revolutionary. I haven't given up anything, even though I'm willing to (although that sentiment doesn't extend to the Patriot Act, which is so flawed on its face that I have trouble understanding why it's able to pass into legislation). There is no uniform sacrifice in this country, not on any level.

Should there be?

Posted by Highwaygirl on July 26, 2005 08:44 AM to the category Current Affairs

Spectacularly well-written piece Julie!

Posted by: Phildozer at July 26, 2005 11:24 AM
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