Tuesday, December 28, 2010

U.S. vets talk about the AVF and their "service"

What's the AVF? It's the initials for the "All Volunteer Force," the present compostion of the United States military. Tom Ricks, former Washington Post military correspondent and current Foreign Policy blogger, has hosted a fascinating conversation among recent and current soldiers about what being part of such a military is like -- and what it does to the relationship between our soldiers and the country at large.

It used to be, until 1974, that if the country wanted to fight a war, it drafted a cross section of young men as soldiers. The system was never fair; privileged people could usually stay out of the fighting. But the big wars of the 20th century up through Vietnam drew in a pretty broad section of the population. Having experienced military service was almost a necessity for ambitious politicians, certifying their "man of the people" status. But since the draft was suspended, that's all changed. As a former Marine who calls himself "A. Scout-Sniper" explains:

The burden of fighting and sharing a war has shrunk to the point where 1 percent of our citizens and their families endure the permanent life-changing consequences of warfare.

He thinks that is wrong and calls for reinstatement of universal service. Some of the reasons he brings forward:
  • The "volunteer" force is not genuinely voluntary. There's a poverty draft.

    While I would like to believe that everyone volunteers 100 percent for only one pure reason, this is another extremist view of life. ... That is a semi-mythical belief all of us as civilians and military tell ourselves to avoid thinking about those we consciously and unconsciously target as recruits and then send half way around the globe while we shirk or exonerate ourselves of any responsibility. USMC, we often say to sleep easy at night: U Signed the Mother-Fucking Contract.

    ...Many Marines I served with, I'm talking Sergeants and down, enlisted to escape poverty and get a college education. Most young people do not know how relatively low military pay is, especially enlisted versus officer, but it's there, every hour for four or twenty years. It also comes with signing bonuses, the GI Bill, health care, or promises of a VA house or business loan after enlistment. Prior to signing up, most of my friends asked themselves how they could pay for college growing up in the poorest class. What if you are not a great student or a superb athlete? You probably won't get that education through McDonald's and you definitely won't get it from the school or your minimum wages of your dual working parents. ...

    ... I spent 30 days, after my first tour, as an assistant recruiter in Salt Lake City, UT and this only reinforced what I heard from my friends in boot camp... My recruiting NCOs and I only canvassed the poorest areas and crappiest high schools... We never visited universities or colleges, let alone middle or upper class neighborhoods. When I was ordered to cold-call various high school kids, the names on the list fit a profile: lower class, conservative families and 60 percent Latino immigrant or first generation Americans. All the stations in SLC are nowhere near middle or upper class areas and I suspect that this is the same in every major city.

  • The military sells itself as better -- more honorable, more profesional -- than civilian pursuits.

    In some sense, we have transformed the military from just a regular part of government service into a special interest group that believes in its own entitlement. ...Typically we use the high-society term "professional" to describe our military. Its overuse, by those inside and outside, sounds suspicious[ly] as if Americans in other periods were unskilled simpletons with mediocre public schooling and industrial skills who made average soldiers at best. This sets up a dangerous perception that the military is "better" than the government and, in turn, the society it serves. Part of this I-Am-Special mentality comes from the idea that we are all volunteers and thus better humans because we willingly and knowingly gave up our lives in both blood and time and joined a very small club. We don't honor our local EMTs, AmeriCorps students, Policemen, City Water Sewage personnel, teachers, and VA doctors, for instance, who give up just as much and sometimes more.

    A commenter who uses the nickname "Mixalot87" enlarges on this theme.

    His thoughts on entitlement are also chillingly on point. This isn't a new state of affairs, but this article conveys the realities of this phenomenon better than I've ever seen before. It isn't the soldier's/marines fault. They're inundated with this from the day the enter the service, particularly during briefing from Generals and CSMs that they are taught to emulate from Day 1. In fact, since I have been introduced to the military, I have always believed that one of the major reasons many career Soldiers don't want a draft is that it would end their monopoly on the bragging rights of being one of "the few." As the author alludes to, there is a dangerous sense of- dare I say it- martyrdom that has taken hold over the ranks in the past few years. Draftees made the world safe for democracy in 1918, defeated Hitler and Hirohito in 1945, pushed to the Yalu in 1950, and fought without ever losing a significant military engagement for over a decade in Vietnam.

  • A military whose social composition is as narrow as our current one, easily becomes politicized -- in just one direction. Again "Sniper":

    During boot camp, I was taught to hold civilians as nasty, sub-human liberals, which only distanced Marines from their own society. ... When my Marines asked me who I was voting for in 2004 I told them I wasn't voting because I didn't think it was okay to be engaged in politics whatsoever while in uniform. I said there was no pressure to vote or not vote and to make their own decision. A platoon commander overheard this, and instantly struck down my position and told them to re-elect the president or face the consequences of a lost war. It seemed unprofessional to me then and now.

    This is a pretty new development in our history and one that should trouble anyone who is trying to fight a war. Typically we want an apolitical military with lots of talented people because they can use those talents in the fight and because we don't want military coups. ...Talented people come from all walks of political life and whether we like it or not, a lot of the talent we need in this kind of war (historians, linguists, cultural anthropologists, union leaders, Islamic scholars, grass roots organizers, student teachers and agriculture specialists to name a few) are generally not all conservatives but that shouldn't matter. Why not have feminists, soccer moms, gay dads, retired generals, Islamic privates, psychologists, businessmen, and so forth talking about issues in the military in forums like this unlike the current situation: a small group of "professionals" or ex-military who are typically right of center and generally white men?

    A commenter who calls himself "Rubber Ducky" adds

    War is always ugly and the human fuel needed for the war machine will suffer, whether lured into uniform by economic need or drafted under law. But if the latter, if the nation has a real stake in the war's conduct, the war-makers are denied carte blanche to continue warring absent strategy, absent result. We didn't lose the war in Vietnam because of protests, we had protests because we were losing the war and the American people couldn't figure out what we were doing, why we were there, or how long we'd need to stay. Sound familiar?

    ...Let's try this as an either/or issue: either the US military is an intrinsic part of our American nation or it is a separate mercenary force employed for odd jobs and distasteful tasks. I certainly prefer the former formulation, but absent a draft and with the AVF, I fear the truth is much closer to the latter case.

These guys (I think the commenters are all men, though I could be wrong) aren't antiwar exactly, though they think their civilian bosses are doing a piss poor job of leading them and some think they may have done more harm than good for the country's interests in the theaters where they served. (In these suspicions, they are probably no different from many draftees in past wars if I have read my history accurately.) Most soldiers who have to do the actual fighting have a pretty low opinion of politicians and desk jockeys.

Mostly they feel out on a limb in a society that has no idea what their service has meant. One or two even wish there was more of an antiwar movement; that would show them someone noticed. David J. Morris writes

...no one at home gives a shit and as a result, the wars go on and on without any real sense of accountability. Ours is not to reason why seems to be the operative philosophy. And life in unbombed America goes on and on, as if nothing at all has happened, a horrific incongruity that leaves many veterans to wonder which is the more obscene: the wars or the public's shameful ignorance of them.

Precisely because only one percent of people in the United States are directly experiencing the country's Iraq and Afghanistan adventures, people who oppose these wars need to work at getting a glimmer about how they are experienced by the fighting forces. I've rearranged and excerpted in these posts. Go read the whole thing and do go on to follow up posts, here, here, and here.

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