Rattling the Cage: The hollowest generation

For the American elite, war is an abstraction.

April 26, 2006 19:56
4 minute read.
larry derfner 88

larry derfner 88. (photo credit: )


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Often when I read an American commentator or politician on how the US should fight in Iraq, or in Iran, or in Darfur or anyplace else, I wonder: Does this guy, personally, know what war is? Did he fight for his country? Did he serve in the military at all? Since he is probably past entry-level military age by now, is his son serving in the US armed forces, or his grandson? Will they in the future? The chances are awfully slim. As a rule, the American ruling class - the political, economic and intellectual elite - don't bear arms for their country. With rare exceptions, they don't volunteer for the all-volunteer army, and neither do their sons or grandsons. Note that hardly any of these people are pacifists; they believe in a strong American military, they send, or often support sending, American soldiers to war, but they are virtually immune from the consequences. The military is not part of their world. For the American elite, war is an abstraction, and they leave it mainly to America's lower-middle-class and poor, who conveniently have no better career options than soldiering, to face the unpleasant reality. Until the Vietnam War, this wasn't the case, but it is now, and it is one extraordinary case. There has never been a country as powerful as America today, but I don't know of any world power in history whose power elite was effectively exempt from defending it. And while I don't know about other leading Western countries with all-volunteer armies, including Britain, France, Italy, Holland, Spain, Australia and Canada, my guess is that the situation there is about the same as in the US: since their young leaders-to-be have better things to do than join the army and maybe get themselves killed, the job is left to those who have nothing better to do. WHAT A miserable, rotten state of affairs. How can anybody who believes in patriotism, and that all men are created equal, defend such an arrangement, which has become so entrenched in the US and probably other Western democracies? (I'm purposely leaving out women because I don't think they should be required to fight in war.) How can anybody who's made it his business to stay out of harm's way, and whose heirs, as a matter of course, will do the same, feel entitled to argue for war? Worse, how can they have a hand in sending their less privileged countrymen into battle? But in the last two generations, this amoral social order has become the American way of life. And except for a few military veterans, nobody in that country wants to talk about this issue. It's become the elephant in the living room that Americans pretend isn't there. The hypocrisy wasn't so noticeable before 9/11, when America wasn't in such a martial mood. But ever since, with "America is at war" becoming President Bush's motto, this contradiction between the ruling class's words and the ruling class's deeds couldn't be more glaring. The problem is not just that President Bush ducked the Vietnam War and that Vice President Cheney ducked the wartime draft, the problem is that it's almost impossible to find a military veteran under the age of 70 - Korean War fighting age - anywhere inside the Bush administration, the Republican Party, the American conservative think tanks or American conservative media. The world's only superpower is at war, and its ruling class is manned almost wall-to-wall by "chickenhawks" - hawks by ideology, chickens by example. The US wasn't like this during its first two centuries. The Civil War draft riots and exemptions-for-cash were the exceptions to the rule that when the country was at war, all men who were physically and mentally able were expected to sign up to fight, regardless of their social, economic or educational status. No more. AND IN a way, it's just as disgraceful for the antiwar American Left, or at least those who aren't pacifists, to consider themselves exempt from military service. These people, who are almost exclusively urban, college-educated, middle-to-upper-class, swear by the principle of socioeconomic equality. Yet their freedom to be lifelong civilians depends on America's socioeconomic inequality, which fills the country's military ranks with poor and lower-middle-class soldiers. Note that this amorality and disgrace attaches to American Jews more than to most US communities, because not only do Jews feature disproportionately among America's privileged classes, they also feature disproportionately among both the Republican "chickenhawks" and Democratic "limousine liberals." Until the last two generations, Jews did their part in the US armed forces. No more. There is only one moral, equitable, patriotic system for military service, whether in wartime or peacetime: Every young man who is able has to serve, by law. (And if there are way too many young men for the army to use, choose them by lottery - without college deferments.) That's the way it is in Israel (although reserve duty now falls inequitably on combat soldiers), and it may be the most decent, honorable thing about this society. I'm no army freak, to say the least; like virtually every other soldier in my alteh cocker IDF unit, I hated every day I was in uniform, taking orders. I also know that any army can do dangerous, terrible things to some people, especially young men; as a middle-aged reservist, I got to see only a little of this, and it was too much. But the question is this: If you are not a pacifist, if you believe that your country needs an army and that occasionally, tragically, it may be necessary for it to go to war, why should somebody else and somebody else's son have to risk their lives in that army, but you and your son shouldn't? They call the Americans who fought World War II the Greatest Generation. I would call the Americans who won't be fighting in Iraq, or anyplace else, the Hollowest Generation.

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