Sunday, April 15, 2018

Are American Soldiers Heroes?

"Get jailed, jump bail,
Join the Army if you fail"
--Subterranean Homesick Blues/Bob Dylan

"We went to war; America went to the mall."
--American Army ditty

At the end of the Band of Brothers episode "The Last Patrol," David Webster voice overs a paragraph about how the end of the Second World War was in sight and while American soldiers were still dying in towns like Haguena on the German border, back in America night clubs and casino's were packed and you couldn't get a hotel room at most resorts. Even in that war, when the entire population was mobilized or at risk for mobilization only a small number of men were actually at the tip of the spear, on the front lines. "Nobody back home would ever know what those men sacrificed," Webster says.

So, in modern times, as long as America fights its wars abroad, there will likely be a disconnect between the price paid by a small number of warriors and that paid by the civilian population.

The refrain "they fight to keep us free," is a little shopworn, even after 9/11. After all, no terrorist attack has ever actually threatened our freedom, unless you count the freedom to hop a jet to Florida during the winter. They fight to keep us safe might be more like it, but it's not at all clear any of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Niger or Syria have done that.

America went to the "volunteer" army, to "professionalize" military service after Vietnam, mostly because politicians realized if you drafted boys out of families and sent them into harm's way more or less against their will, you'd better be able to sell that to their parents, and truth is, we haven't had a war since where you could sell the idea to Congress, much less to parents.

So, who does "volunteer?" Are our armed forces comprised of young men and women who are motivated by love of country, eager to defend our freedoms or are they simply young people who have looked around at the available options and concluded the best deal for them, economically, financially, socially is to join the military?

"Hillbilly Elegy" details the dysfunctional Appalachian family and communities from which J.D. Vance fled to the Army. One of the most pathetic scenes in the book is at Chili's restaurant, where Vance, returning home on leave, has enough money to buy his grandparents and sibling dinner. It was the proudest moment in his life. He felt like a man.

Not everyone in the Army was from as desperate circumstances as J.D. Vance. Pat Tillman was a millionaire professional football player who joined the Army after 9/11 and then died in a firefight in Afghanistan, shot by mistake by his own compatriots, killed by friendly fire.

There are likely many reasons young people join:  some are from military families; some are disaffected by school; some dream of becoming heroes.

But they can all claim that most socially acceptable motive of all: Patriotism.

Whatever that may be. 

The armed forces have marketed service with huge flags unfurled at ball fields, action ads on TV, smart uniforms, support of TV shows and movies.  And at the end of every big scene is the line about how we are about to die for freedom and country.

I have never served in combat, so I cannot know, but I suspect if combat shares anything with the service I have seen in the emergency rooms and wards, when you are there, you have no grand illusions of valor. You are just trying to survive and you are trying to not embarrass yourself and you are trying to use your training to get a specific job done.

The fact is, our volunteer Army is a mercenary army. You may not like that word, "mercenary" with it's connotation of motivation devoid of ethics, based on money alone. A prostitute is mercenary. A wife loves her husband, but also benefits financially (if she's lucky.) Human motivation is seldom uni-dimensional. But the fact remains, as President Trump told the wife of a soldier killed in Niger, "He knew what he was signing up for," that was one of truest things President Heel Spurs ever said. 
For Trump, everything thing is financial, a negotiation for the best deal. These soldiers--they are just trying to get the best deal they can. Let's not muddy the waters with "patriotism."  Patriotism is for suckers.

Of course, there are people and times when you can't avoid patriotism. There is that wonderful scene in "Gone With the Wind," in which the most cynical and realistic character in the story, Rhett Butler, sees the old men and young boys who are marching out of Atlanta with rifles slung over their shoulders and he jumps down from the wagon and hands the reins to Scarlett O'Hara and she is outraged, "You can't just leave us to go fight some war!" And Butler tells her he knows it's ridiculous, but sometimes you just have to do something which is not in your own best interest.

We haven't had that sort of choice when it comes to military service in this country since the war against Hitler.

And there is a wonderful sequence in "Full Metal Jacket" where a camera crew interviews Marines on the way to  the fight for Hue, in Vietnam, and the reporter asks Animal Mother, the BAR man (who carries a very big gun) if he is fighting for freedom. "Freedom?" Animal Mother laughs. "You think I'd kill someone for freedom?"

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