Armed Forces Aren't in This War Alone
"Who am I? And what am I doing here?" a befuddled Admiral James Stockdale famously asked during the 1992 vice-presidential debate.
Throughout my week at the U.S. Army War College's National Security Seminar, I felt just like Ross Perot's running mate and asked myself those same questions.
Who was I? A civilian among a lot of military people. And one reason I was there, I came to decide during a particularly intense exchange over America's view of the war in Iraq, was to challenge a particular phrase that a couple of soldiers in our seminar kept using to illustrate what they saw as a civilian disconnect with the military.
Even one of our distinguished lecturers used the phrase. It was almost like a mantra for them.
"The country isn't at war," they would say, "but the Army is."
The eight civilians in our seminar were nearly unanimous on this issue -- convinced that the soldiers were wrong. That's when it dawned on me that we were at this particular place to disabuse these soldiers of this martyrlike mindset.
During a lengthy discussion, one of my female colleagues became so emotional on that score that she had mascara-tinged tears streaming down her cheeks as she insisted that the country wasn't indifferent to the military's service and the sacrifice that comes with it. Her thoughts and tears surprised the soldiers and, I think, changed their minds.
"I didn't agree with what they were saying," my female colleague explained later. "I respect them too much for them to say that publicly, much less to think that way. I think they are misreading what the country is thinking. People know we're at war. Theirs is an insular perspective, because they're all coming from the same point of view."
Since America isn't totally mobilized the way it was during World War II, there is some truth to the statement that the country "isn't at war." The constant rotation of deployments has turned the military class upside-down, while the lives of many American civilians -- other than having to buy much more expensive gasoline -- have remained relatively unchanged. But that doesn't make the country apathetic to the soldiers' situation or that of their families.
The root of the resentment among the soldiers was a perception that their work was undervalued by society. That angst resonated with the group. Teachers, who have seen a dwindling in their ranks, can make a similar case. These military personnel worry that they'll have the same problem as educators.
Most folks, it was noted, join the armed forces because a parent was a soldier -- not for the nobility of the work.
"I fear we're creating a military caste system, with fewer and fewer families breeding the country's soldiers," one of the soldiers said during the intense discussion. "I don't think that is good for the Republic."
Ironically, the military personnel adamantly opposed reinstating the draft or adopting any kind of compulsory national service including a military option -- even though that would spread the sacrifice over a broader slice of American society.
In the end, our class found the notion that the nation is not at war to be more self-serving than illuminating.
This war does, indeed, differ from World War II, when the citizenry had multiple points of connection to the war effort. But that doesn't mean we civilians place any less value on the valor with which the members of our armed forces have served and are serving.
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