Among Monday’s Fourth of July reliable pieties were many exhortations to “support the troops.” We heard little or nothing about what really supporting our troops would look like.
A commenter on my Fourth of July post advocated reinstitution of the military draft; the comment reminded me of a book review I read awhile back, so I dug it out. In the New York Times, Matthew Crawford reviewed Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. Junger had previously directed two well-received documentaries about an American platoon stationed in a small village in Afghanistan. In those films, Crawford tells us, we see
…the recalcitrant realities of killing. We see the joys and depravities of a cell of men released from the neutering moral regulation of American society. That society has a mission for them to do, but it cannot avow the means by which it is to be accomplished and must avert its gaze from the appalling maleness of it all.
In Tribe, Junger asks: how do you return home from such an experience, an experience where the qualities demanded of soldiers, the qualities cultivated by war, are “fundamentally at odds with our public principles”? How do you reintegrate these young people into a society largely indifferent to and unaware of the nation’s foreign entanglements, let alone the realities of combat?
In his review of the book, Crawford points out that the problems of re-entry and reintegration into society in countries (like Israel) where the burdens of national defense are widely shared–and much less remote from the collective consciousness of the general public–are much different from the problems faced by returning American soldiers.
There are strengths and weaknesses to a volunteer army. I would suggest that the weaknesses are significant–and corrosive–and that they outweigh the strengths.
Our “volunteers” are mostly recruited from marginalized populations and those who have few other educational or employment options. To be blunt (and not “politically correct”), that reality–and America’s extensive use of “contractors” (aka mercenaries)– makes it easier for lawmakers to authorize military actions. They need not come back to their districts and face constituents whose sons and daughters have been conscripted and sent into danger.
I have previously written about the negative consequences of “outsourcing” patriotism. In the concluding paragraph of his book review, Crawford underlines several of my concerns.
The self-deceptions of contemporary society that Junger elaborates run too deep to be relieved by exhortations to “support the troops.” The conclusion one reaches upon finishing Tribe is that we should bring back the draft and have universal, obligatory military service. It is hard to think of a public policy reform that would do more to heal the growing chasm of social class, affirm our shared destiny as citizens and at the same time discipline our foreign policy. A nation of 320 million will never be a tribe, but if after such a reform we still have enthusiasm for putting “boots on the ground,” those boots will belong to “us” rather than “them.”
I couldn’t agree more.