Bring Back National Service

Dad in Oregon
My dad (2nd from left) in Oregon with some of the “fellows,” c.1937

With fires raging in California and Oregon, and with unemployment rates high, I recalled the experiences of my dad, which I wrote about twelve years ago for TomDispatch.com.  My dad served in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), mainly fighting forest fires in Oregon.  The CCC was one of those alphabet soup agencies created by FDR’s administration to put people back to work while paying them a meaningful wage.  You might call it “democratic socialism,” but I prefer to call it common sense and applaud its spirit of service to country.

We need to revive national service while deemphasizing its military aspects.  There are all sorts of honorable services one can render to one’s fellow citizens, as my father’s example shows from the 1930s, an era that now seems almost biblical in its remoteness from today’s concerns.

Hey, Government! How About Calling on Us?
Reviving National Service in a Big Way
By William J. Astore

Lately, our news has focused on tropical depressions maturing into monster hurricanes that leave devastation in their wake — and I’m not just talking about Gustav and Ike. Today, we face a perfect storm of financial devastation, notable for the enormity of the greed that generated it and the somnolent response of our government in helping Americans left devastated in its wake.

As unemployment rates soar to their highest level in five years and home construction sinks to its lowest level in 17 years, all our federal government seems able to do is buy up to $700 billion in “distressed” mortgage-related assets, bail-out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (at a cost of roughly $200 billion) or “loan” $85 billion to liquidate insurance giant AIG. If you’re Merrill Lynch, you get a hearing; if you’re just plain Marilyn Lynch of Topeka, what you get is a recession, a looming depression, and a federal tax bill for the fat-cat bail-outs.

But, amazingly enough, ordinary Americans generally don’t want bail-outs, nor do they want handouts. What they normally want is honorable work, decent wages, and a government willing to wake up and help them contribute to a national restoration.

How America Was Once Rebuilt

Before surging ahead, however, let’s look back. Seventy-five years ago, our country faced an even deeper depression. Millions of men had neither jobs, nor job prospects. Families were struggling to put food on the table. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt acted. He created the Civilian Conservation Corps, soon widely known as the CCC.

From 1933 to 1942, the CCC enrolled nearly 3.5 million men in roughly 4,500 camps across the country. It helped to build roads, build and repair bridges, clear brush and fight forest fires, create state parks and recreational areas, and otherwise develop and improve our nation’s infrastructure — work no less desperately needed today than it was back then. These young men — women were not included — willingly lived in primitive camps and barracks, sacrificing to support their families who were hurting back home.

My father, who served in the CCC from 1935 to 1937, was among those young men. They earned $30 a month for their labor — a dollar a day — and he sent home $25 of that to support the family. For those modest wages, he and others like him gave liberally to our country in return. The stats are still impressive: 800 state parks developed; 125,000 miles of road built; more than two billion trees planted; 972 million fish stocked. The list goes on and on in jaw-dropping detail.

Not only did the CCC improve our country physically, you might even say that experiencing it prepared a significant part of the “greatest generation” of World War II for greatness. After all, veterans of the CCC had already learned to work and sacrifice for something larger than themselves — for, in fact, their families, their state, their country. As important as the G.I. Bill was to veterans returning from that war and to our country’s economic boom in the 1950s, the CCC was certainly no less important in building character and instilling an ethic of teamwork, service, and sacrifice in a generation of American men.

Today, we desperately need to tap a similar ethic of service to country. The parlous health of our communities, our rickety infrastructure, and our increasingly rickety country demands nothing less.

Of course, I’m hardly alone in suggesting the importance of national service. Last year, in Time Magazine, for example, Richard Stengel called for a revival of national service and urged the formation of a “Green Corps,” analogous to the CCC, and dedicated to the rejuvenation of our national infrastructure.

To mark the seventh anniversary of 9/11, John McCain and Barack Obama recently spoke in glowing terms of national service at a forum hosted by Columbia University. Both men expressed support for increased governmental spending, with McCain promising that, as president, he would sign into law the Kennedy-Hatch “Serve America Act,” which would, among other things, triple the size of the AmeriCorps. (Of course, McCain had just come from a Republican convention that had again and again mocked Obama’s time as a “community organizer” and, even at Columbia, he expressed a preference for faith-based organizations and the private sector over service programs run by the government.) Obama has made national service a pillar of his campaign, promising to spend $3.5 billion annually to more than triple the size of AmeriCorps, while also doubling the size of the Peace Corps.

It all sounds impressive. But is it? Compared to the roughly $900 billion being spent in FY2009 on national defense, homeland security, intelligence, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $3.5 billion seems like chump change, not a major investment in national service or in Americans. When you consider the problems facing American workers and our country, both McCain and Obama are remarkable in their timidity. Now is surely not the time to tinker with the controls on a ship of state that’s listing dangerously to starboard.

Do I overstate? Here are just two data points. Last month our national unemployment rate rose to 6.1%, a five-year high. This year alone, we’ve shed more than 600,000 jobs in eight months. If you include the so-called marginally attached jobless, 11 million Americans are currently out of work, which adds up to a real unemployment rate of 7.1%. Now, that doesn’t begin to compare to the unemployment rate during the Great Depression which, at times, exceeded 20%. In absolute terms, however, 11 million unemployed American workers represent an enormous waste of human potential.

How can we get people off the jobless rolls, while offering them useful tasks that will help support families, while building character, community, and country?

Here’s where our federal government really should step in, just as it did in 1933. For we face an enormous national challenge today which goes largely unaddressed: shoring up our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The prestigious American Society of Civil Engineers did a survey of, and a report card on, the state of the American infrastructure. Our country’s backbone earned a dismal “D,” barely above a failing (and fatal) grade. The Society estimates that we need to invest $1.6 trillion in infrastructure maintenance and improvements over the next five years or face ever more collapsing bridges and bursting dams. It’s a staggering sum, until you realize that we’re already approaching a trillion dollars spent on the Iraq war alone.

No less pressing than a trillion-dollar investment in our nation’s physical health is a commensurate investment in the emotional and civic well-being of our country — not just the drop-in-the-bucket amounts both Obama and McCain are talking about, but something commensurate with the task ahead of us. As our president dithers, even refusing to use the “R” word of recession, The Wall Street Journal quotes Mark Gertler, a New York University economist, simply stating this is “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

The best and fairest way to head off that crisis is not simply to spend untold scores of billions of taxpayer dollars rescuing (or even liquidating) recklessly speculative outfits that gave no thought to ordinary workers while they were living large. Rather, our government should invest scores of billions in empowering the ordinary American worker, particularly those who have suffered the most from the economic ravages of our financial hurricane.

Just as in 1933, a call today to serve our country and strengthen its infrastructure would serve to reenergize a shared sense of commitment to America. Such service would touch millions of Americans in powerful ways that can’t be fully predicted in advance, just as it touched my father as a young man.

What “Ordinary” Americans Are Capable Of

My father was a self-confessed “regular guy,” and his CCC service was typical. He was a “woodsman-falling,” a somewhat droll job title perhaps, but one that concealed considerable danger. In the fall of 1936, he fought the Bandon forest fire in Oregon, a huge conflagration that burned 100,000 acres and killed a dozen people. To corral and contain that fire, he and the other “fellows” in his company worked on the fire lines for five straight weeks. At one point, my father worked 22 hours straight, in part because the fire raged so fiercely and so close to him that he was too scared to sleep (as he admitted to me long after).

My father was 19 when he fought that fire. Previously, he had been a newspaper boy and had after the tenth grade quit high school to support the family. Still, nothing marked him as a man who would risk his own life to save the lives of others, but his country gave him an opportunity to serve and prove himself, and he did.

Before joining the CCC, my father had been a city boy, but in the Oregon woods he discovered a new world of great wonder. It enriched his life, just as his recollections of it enrich my own:

“Thunder and lightning are very dangerous in the forest. Well, one stormy night a Forest Ranger smoke chaser got a call from the fire tower. They spotted a small night fire; getting the location the Ranger took me and another CCC boy to check it out. After walking about a mile in the woods we spotted the fire. It had burned a circle of fire at least 100 yards in diameter from the impact of the lightning bolt.

“You never saw anything so beautiful. The trees were all lit in fire; the fire on the ground was lit up in hot coals. Also fiery embers were falling off the trees. Some of the trees were dried dead snags. It looked like the New York skyline lit up at night. The Ranger radioed back for a fire crew. Meanwhile the three of us started to contain the fire with a fire trail.

“Later, we got caught in a thunderstorm in the mountains. We stretched a tarpaulin to protect ourselves from the downpours. You could see the storm clouds, with thunder and lightning flashing, approaching and passing over us. Then the torrents of rain. It would stop and clear with stars shining. And sure enough it must have repeated the sequence at least five times. What a night.”

Jump ahead to 2008 and picture a nineteen-year-old high school dropout. Do you see a self-centered slacker, someone too preoccupied exercising his thumbs on video games, or advertising himself on MySpace and Facebook, to do much of anything to help anyone other than himself?

Sure, there are a few of these. Aren’t there always? But many more young Americans already serve or volunteer in some capacity. Even our imaginary slacker may just need an opportunity — and a little push — to prove his mettle. We’ll never know unless our leaders put our money where, at present, only their mouths are.

Remaking National Service — And Our Country

Today, when most people think of national service, they think of military service. As a retired military officer, I’m hardly one to discount the importance of such service, but we need to extend the notion of service beyond the military, beyond national defense, to embrace all dimensions of civic life. Imagine if such service was as much the norm as in the 1930s, rather than the exception, and imagine if our government was no longer seen as the problem, but the progenitor of opportunity and solutions?

Some will say it can no longer be done. Much like Rudy Giuliani, they’ll poke fun at the whole idea of service, and paint the government as dangerously corrupt, or wasteful, or even as the enemy of the people — perhaps because they’re part of that same government.

How sad. We don’t need jaded “insiders” or callow “outsiders” in Washington; what we need are doers and dreamers. We need leaders with faith both in the people — the common worker with uncommon spirit — and the government to inspire and get things done.

The unselfish idealism, work ethic, and public service of the CCC could be tapped again, if only our government remembers that our greatest national resource is not exhaustible commodities like oil or natural gas, but the inexhaustible spirit and generosity of the American worker.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He now teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005), among other works. He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.

Copyright 2008 William Astore

Time to Change America

00EARTHRISE1-superJumbo
There’s only one Spaceship Earth

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I argue that the coronavirus crisis provides an opportunity to reimagine America.  Please read the entire article at TomDispatch; what follows is an extended excerpt.  Thanks!

This should be a time for a genuinely new approach, one fit for a world of rising disruption and disaster, one that would define a new, more democratic, less bellicose America. To that end, here are seven suggestions, focusing — since I’m a retired military officer — mainly on the U.S. military, a subject that continues to preoccupy me, especially since, at present, that military and the rest of the national security state swallow up roughly 60% of federal discretionary spending:

1. If ever there was a time to reduce our massive and wasteful military spending, this is it. There was never, for example, any sense in investing up to $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years to “modernize” America’s nuclear arsenal. (Why are new weapons needed to exterminate humanity when the “old” ones still work just fine?) Hundreds of stealth fighters and bombers — it’s estimated that Lockheed Martin’s disappointing F-35 jet fighter alone will cost $1.5 trillion over its life span — do nothing to secure us from pandemics, the devastating effects of climate change, or other all-too-pressing threats. Such weaponry only emboldens a militaristic and chauvinistic foreign policy that will facilitate yet more wars and blowback problems of every sort. And speaking of wars, isn’t it finally time to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? More than $6 trillion has already been wasted on those wars and, in this time of global peril, even more is being wasted on this country’s forever conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. (Roughly $4 billion a month continues to be spent on Afghanistan alone, despite all the talk about “peace” there.)

2. Along with ending profligate weapons programs and quagmire wars, isn’t it time for the U.S. to begin dramatically reducing its military “footprint” on this planet? Roughly 800 U.S. military bases circle the globe in a historically unprecedented fashion at a yearly cost somewhere north of $100 billion. Cutting such numbers in half over the next decade would be a more than achievable goal. Permanently cutting provocative “war games” in South Korea, Europe, and elsewhere would be no less sensible. Are North Korea and Russia truly deterred by such dramatic displays of destructive military might?

3. Come to think of it, why does the U.S. need the immediate military capacity to fight two major foreign wars simultaneously, as the Pentagon continues to insist we do and plan for, in the name of “defending” our country? Here’s a radical proposal: if you add 70,000 Special Operations forces to 186,000 Marine Corps personnel, the U.S. already possesses a potent quick-strike force of roughly 250,000 troops. Now, add in the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions and the 10th Mountain Division. What you have is more than enough military power to provide for America’s actual national security. All other Army divisions could be reduced to cadres, expandable only if our borders are directly threatened by war. Similarly, restructure the Air Force and Navy to de-emphasize the present “global strike” vision of those services, while getting rid of Donald Trump’s newest service, the Space Force, and the absurdist idea of taking war into low earth orbit. Doesn’t America already have enough war here on this small planet of ours?

4. Bring back the draft, just not for military purposes. Make it part of a national service program for improving America. It’s time for a new Civilian Conservation Corps focused on fostering a Green New Deal. It’s time for a new Works Progress Administration to rebuild America’s infrastructure and reinvigorate our culture, as that organization did in the Great Depression years. It’s time to engage young people in service to this country. Tackling COVID-19 or future pandemics would be far easier if there were quickly trained medical aides who could help free doctors and nurses to focus on the more difficult cases. Tackling climate change will likely require more young men and women fighting forest fires on the west coast, as my dad did while in the CCC — and in a climate-changing world there will be no shortage of other necessary projects to save our planet. Isn’t it time America’s youth answered a call to service? Better yet, isn’t it time we offered them the opportunity to truly put America, rather than themselves, first?

5. And speaking of “America First,” that eternal Trumpian catch-phrase, isn’t it time for all Americans to recognize that global pandemics and climate change make a mockery of walls and go-it-alone nationalism, not to speak of politics that divide, distract, and keep so many down? President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that only Americans can truly hurt America, but there’s a corollary to that: only Americans can truly save America — by uniting, focusing on our common problems, and uplifting one another. To do so, it’s vitally necessary to put an end to fear-mongering (and warmongering). As President Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address in the depths of the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear inhibits our ability to think clearly, to cooperate fully, to change things radically as a community.

6. To cite Yoda, the Jedi master, we must unlearn what we have learned. For example, America’s real heroes shouldn’t be “warriors” who kill or sports stars who throw footballs and dunk basketballs. We’re witnessing our true heroes in action right now: our doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel, together with our first responders, and those workers who stay in grocery stores, pharmacies, and the like and continue to serve us all despite the danger of contracting the coronavirus from customers. They are all selflessly resisting a threat too many of us either didn’t foresee or refused to treat seriously, most notably, of course, President Donald Trump: a pandemic that transcends borders and boundaries. But can Americans transcend the increasingly harsh and divisive borders and boundaries of our own minds? Can we come to work selflessly to save and improve the lives of others? Can we become, in a sense, lovers of humanity?

7. Finally, we must extend our love to encompass nature, our planet. For if we keep treating our lands, our waters, and our skies like a set of trash cans and garbage bins, our children and their children will inherit far harder times than the present moment, hard as it may be.

What these seven suggestions really amount to is rejecting a militarized mindset of aggression and a corporate mindset of exploitation for one that sees humanity and this planet more holistically. Isn’t it time to regain that vision of the earth we shared collectively during the Apollo moon missions: a fragile blue sanctuary floating in the velvety darkness of space, an irreplaceable home to be cared for and respected since there’s no other place for us to go?

Sports, War, Fairness, and Fate: Lessons from My Dad

Spunk visit 005
My dad (left) during armored desert maneuvers in California

W.J. Astore

Life isn’t fair: that’s a lesson my dad learned growing up during the Great Depression and working hard in the Civilian Conservation Corps and local factories in the 1930s.  He also learned it during World War II, when he was drafted and eventually assigned to an armored headquarters company at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  In fact, before World War II, my dad tried to enlist in the Navy, only to discover he was too short to make the grade (he was just under 64″, the Navy minimum, and recruiters were picky before Pearl Harbor).  A half-inch or so probably saved my dad’s life.  After that experience, my dad vowed he wouldn’t volunteer for war; he’d wait until he was drafted, which he was in 1942 by the Army.

My dad was on track to be a surgical technician for the 7th Armored Division; he would have gone overseas and faced combat.  But another soldier on the dental technician track talked my dad into switching positions with him.  My dad agreed, only to learn a dental technician was limited to a corporal technician’s rating, whereas a surgical tech could become a sergeant with higher pay.  My dad was also “excess” on the table of organization when he finished training, so he was reassigned from the 7th Armored to the 15th Armored Group.

My dad had to transfer and got less pay, but he got lucky: his new unit didn’t go overseas, whereas the 7th Armored did.  A guy he knew, Danny Costellani, was transferred from medical battalion to armored infantry while in France and was killed in action.  My dad knew this could have been him.

While my dad was assigned to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, late in 1944, there was a frantic call for more soldiers to be sent overseas in response to high losses during the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of World War II.  Many “green” recruits were rushed through basic training and shipped overseas to fight the Germans.  But a few local Southerners noticed that highly qualified soldier-athletes at Fort Jackson weren’t being sent anywhere.  They just seemed to stay in place while playing baseball, football, tennis, and other sports.  I’ll let my dad take the story from here:

During the Battle of the Bulge some Southern civilians were wondering why their sons, after Basic Training were shipped overseas as replacements.  While the Post Commander had on station complement a group of about fifty soldiers who played sports for the Ft Jackson baseball, basketball, football and even tennis teams.  Well the general got an order from higher echelons to put all able bodied troops into a combat outfit.  Well fifty of our soldiers were shipped overseas and fifty of the general’s athletes were put into our company.  When that happened the rest of our company figured we would never go overseas.  As time showed 99% stayed state side.  The 15th Armored Group took all the athletic honors.  Very seldom did our sports teams lose.

My dad saved newspaper clippings that celebrated the athletic achievements of the 15th Armored Group.  One photo showed the 15th Headquarters and Headquarters Company orientation room, which included a prominent section on “The World of Sports” and a table showcasing all individual and team trophies.

My dad may have owed his life to a picky Navy recruiter and a fellow soldier who wanted sergeant’s stripes.  These athletes at Fort Jackson may have owed their lives to a post commander who preferred winning at sports to shipping the most able-bodied troops overseas to fight the enemy.

Yes, life isn’t fair.  And fate sure does have an odd sense of humor.

Remembering the Quiet, Unsung Heroes

W.J. Astore

Six years ago, I posted this article for Memorial Day 2011.

This Memorial Day, let’s remember and learn from our heroes who are gone from us. For me, my heroes are my parents, both of whom grew up in single-parent families during the Great Depression. Let’s start with my Mom. Our concept of “hero” today often works against moms; our culture tends to glorify our troops and other people of action: police, firefighters, and other risk-takers who help others. But to me my Mom was a hero. As a young woman, she worked long hours in a factory to help support her mother. She married at twenty-seven and quickly had four children in five years (I came along a few years later, the beneficiary of the “rhythm method” of Catholic birth control). As a full-time homemaker, she raised five children in a working-class neighborhood while struggling with intense family issues (an older son, my brother, struggled with schizophrenia, a mental disease little understood in the early 1970s).

honeymoon
My parents on their honeymoon

Despite these burdens and more, my Mom was always upbeat and giving: traits that didn’t change even when she was diagnosed with cancer. She struggled against the ravages of that disease for five long years before succumbing to it in 1980. Cancer took her life but not her spirit. I never heard her once complain about the painful chemotherapy and cobalt treatments she endured.

My father too had a difficult life. He had to quit high school after the tenth grade and find a paying job to support the family. At the age of eighteen, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps and fought forest fires in Oregon; factory work followed (where he met my Mom) until that was interrupted by the draft and service in the Army during World War II. After more factory work in the latter half of the 1940s, my Dad got on the local firefighting force, serving with distinction for more than thirty years until his retirement. He died in 2003 after a heart attack and surgery, from which he never fully recovered.

America’s heroes are women and men like my Mom and Dad: the factory workers, the homemakers, the blue-collar doers and givers. And as I think about my Mom and Dad, I recall both their loving natures and their toughness. They had few illusions, and they knew how to get a tough job done, without complaint.

There’s so much we can learn from women and men like them. Personally, I’m so sick of our media and our government telling us how scared we should be — whether of violent crime or violent tornadoes or bogeyman terrorists overseas. My parents recognized the hard-won wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

But today our government prefers to abridge our rights (see the latest extension of the so-called Patriot Act) in the name of keeping us safe and less fearful, a bargain for those who exercise power, but not for tough-minded people working hard to scrape a living for their children (thanks again, Mom and Dad).

My parents weren’t worried about threats emerging from left field. They had real — and much more immediate — challenges to deal with right at home. In this spirit, I still recall my Dad talking somewhat heretically about the Cold War and the Soviet threat. His opinion: if the Americans and Soviets are stupid enough to nuke one another, a billion Chinese will pick up the slack of human civilization. No bomb shelters or ducking and covering for him. It was back to work to support the family by putting out fires in our neck of the woods.

willy
An old polaroid of me and my dad, circa 1980

And that’s what we need to do today as a country. We need to put fear aside and band together to put out fires in our neck of the woods. Together we can make a better country. In so doing, we’ll honor the heroic sacrifices of our families and ancestors: people like my Mom and Dad.

God bless you, Mom, Dad, and all the other quiet and unsung heroes of America.

Four Sayings from My Dad

My Dad in Oregon, 1937
My Dad in Oregon, 1937

W.J. Astore

We tackle heavy subjects at this site, but occasionally we throw in a change of pace.  My Dad was a fount of homespun wisdom and sayings.  Three of them immediately spring to mind. “Water seeks its own level,” meaning (for him) that you don’t have to coddle talented kids—they’ll find their own path in life. “The peaches don’t drop too far from the tree,” meaning kids are often a lot like their parents, even when (especially when) they take pains to deny it.  And “The cream rises to the top.”

That last one is less than obvious to today’s generation.  In these days of homogenized milk, many people have no experience skimming the cream from the top of a glass bottle or bucket of milk.  But my father did.  He recounts his experience in a short anecdote he titled, “A full mess cup,” when he was in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937:

We were in a rest area [in Oregon] when the pickup truck loaded with five gallon cans of fresh milk came in.

I was first in line with my mess cup.  I guess it held more than a pint.  Those days milk wasn’t homogenized.  Being first my cup was filled with 100% cream.  Who thought of fat and cholesterol in those days?  What a taste treat.

Sometimes it pays to be first in line, especially when you can skim the cream from the top.

My father’s fourth saying?  It’s one of my favorites: “The empty barrel makes the most noise.”  I think of this whenever I encounter blowhards — someone like Donald Trump, perhaps?

Fewer American Snipers, More American Workers and Builders

Role model to young men?
Role model to young men?

 

W.J. Astore

Former Army Ranger Rory Fanning has a thoughtful article at TomDispatch.com on why young men should not join the Army to fight the war on terror in distant lands.

Here’s an excerpt:

Believe me, it [the Afghan War] was ugly. We were often enough targeting innocent people based on bad intelligence and in some cases even seizing Afghans who had actually pledged allegiance to the U.S. mission… I know now that if our country’s leadership had truly had peace on its mind, it could have all been over in Afghanistan in early 2002.

If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003 … Given the reign of terror that followed, it’s hardly surprising to find former Baathist army officers in key positions in ISIS and the Sunnis choosing that grim outfit as the lesser of the two evils in its world.  Again, the enemy you are being shipped off to fight is, at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country. And remember that, whatever its grim acts, this enemy presents no existential threat to American security, at least so says Vice President Joe Biden. Let that sink in for a while and then ask yourself whether you really can take your marching orders seriously.

Fanning makes persuasive points here: How the U.S. military bungled its wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan; how often Iraqi and Afghan innocents were killed due to bad intelligence and the usual deadly mistakes associated with war; how the wars fed, and continue to feed, a cycle of violence that is perpetuated by new U.S. troop deployments and weapons sales (with respect to weapons sales, see this excellent article by Peter Van Buren, which details how the U.S. is hawking M1 Abrams main battle tanks to the Iraqis).

Yet persuading young American men against joining the military, let alone convincing them not to strive to be elite Rangers, is not, sadly, an exercise in logic.  In American society today, young men, especially from the working classes, seek an identity and a status that affirms masculinity.  They want to earn the respect of their peers, parents, and prospective dates (and mates).  American society provides few options for such men, especially if they’re living in straitened circumstances in dead-end jobs.  Consider that many physical jobs, such as working in a warehouse, pay only slightly better than minimum wage, with weekly hours curtailed so that employers don’t have to provide health care.

Military service, which exudes masculinity while conveying societal respect (and free health care, among other benefits), is in many ways the most viable option for working-class men (and more than a few women, obviously).  Like it or not, young men often aspire to being “the biggest and baddest,” or at least serving with a unit of such men.  They seek community and a sense of belonging within unapologetically masculine settings.  They may also have dreams of being heroes, or at least of proving themselves as capable within a community of likeminded tough guys.

American society bombards such impressionable young men with images of soldiers, often deified in movies like “Act of Valor” or “Lone Survivor.”  Consider the popular success of “American Sniper,” with its depiction of the resolute sniper as avenger and punisher.  Movies like this are powerful in persuading impressionable youth to sign on the dotted line as volunteers for military service.

Military service, which conveys personal dignity, adds a dash of grandeur.  By joining the military, you become part of something much larger than yourself.  A sense of masculine challenge, especially in elite units like the Army Rangers or Navy SEALs, combined with societal respectability prove alluring to young men.  Sadly, no amount of logic about the lack of wisdom and efficacy of America’s war on terror will convince them otherwise.

Some will say there’s nothing wrong with this.  Why not encourage young men to join the military and to fight in foreign lands?  Yet if those fights serve fallacious causes that amount to strategic folly, our troops’ sacrifices amount to little.

One thing we can do: American society should provide more jobs for young men that convey respect within masculine codes but which don’t require donning a uniform and killing an enemy overseas.

For nearly a decade, I taught working-class students, mostly young men, in rural Pennsylvania.  My students came to class wearing camo fatigues.  Many looked like they had just climbed down from a tree stand in the woods (a big holiday for my students was the first day of rifle deer season).  They drove pickup trucks, listened to country music, dipped Skoal or smoked Marlboros.  They’re not guys who aspire to be metrosexuals sipping lattes at Starbucks.  They’re looking for a job that screams “man,” and sometimes they find it: in welding, as a heavy equipment operator, in residential construction, and so on.

But for those who can’t find such “masculine” vocations that provide decent pay and benefits, military service is powerfully alluring, and almost impossible to resist, especially when there are so few alternatives.

In September 2008, I called for a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps, national service that is dedicated to rebuilding America.  We need to instill an ethic of national service that goes beyond war and killing.  An ethic that inspires young men with patriotic pride and that conveys societal identities that appeal to them as men.

What we need, in short, are fewer “American snipers” and more American workers and builders.

“The Harder I Worked Physically, the Less Money I Made”: The Harsh Reality of Life in America

My father after being drafted in 1942
My father after being drafted in 1942

W.J. and J.A. Astore

My Dad, Julius Anthony Astore, was a child of the Great Depression.  Born in 1917, he had to quit high school in 1933 to help support his family.  In 1935 he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, working in forestry and as a firefighter in Oregon until he left in 1937.

Finding a job after he left the CCC was tough, but eventually Dad got one working at F.B. Washburn’s Candy Company during the Christmas rush.

Here’s how Dad described his job:

I was hired for a five week job starting at 6:00PM and my night shift would be over 6:00AM the next morning.  I would have Saturdays and Sundays off.  My work hours would add up to sixty hours a week and I would get twenty cents an hour.  Total twelve dollars a week.  Those days there wasn’t any time-and-a-half after forty hours.  It was quite a grind.  I had to sugar hard candy that was shaped like a small peach stone.  I won’t go into detail but it was a very tiring job.

From my life’s experience I’ve found that the harder I worked physically the less money I made.

Time goes by and I thought I was going to be laid off at the end of five weeks [but] I was put to work on the day shift permanently.  That was in 1938, four years before I was drafted into the Army and introduced to World War II.

At Washburn’s candy factory, Dad operated a lollipop machine, candy cookers, and he mixed sugar.  His starting salary was $9 a week (working forty-five hours).  By 1942 he was making $17 a week.  As with most factory jobs, the work was tedious, physically demanding, and unrewarding.  Writing ruefully to his brother Gino in 1938, and comparing factory work to his time spent in the CCC, Dad wrote “The CCCs are a helluva lot better than that place [Washburn’s].”

When Dad was drafted into the Army in February 1942, he took a major cut in salary.  From making roughly $70 a month at Washburn’s Candy Factory, his salary dropped to $21 a month as an Army private (which was still $9 less than what he had earned in the CCC in 1935!).  When he was discharged from the Army in January 1946 as a corporal technician, he was finally making what he had earned at Washburn’s, about $69 a month.

Although it’s true that the American soldier was paid better than his British counterpart, it’s still shocking to hear that U.S. privates were fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific for less than $30 a month basic pay.

The truth is simply this: Even the richest, most prosperous country in the world grossly underpaid its frontline troops.  While contractors got rich on the homefront, never risking a hair on their precious necks, young Americans fought and died for peanuts.

Hasn’t it always been this way?  Today, Americans are uncomfortable calling attention to pay discrepancies and exploitation because it smacks of Marxism and class warfare.  Yes, some of the worst abuses of workers have been curbed since my Dad suffered through the Great Depression, but today’s workers are simply scared: scared that their jobs will be outsourced, scared that they’ll be “downsized” (i.e., fired); scared that they’ll be replaced by robots.  Thus they put up and shut up.

For all the rhetoric about the dignity of work in the USA, Dad’s words still ring true: so-called unskilled labor, or demanding physical work, is still undervalued and disrespected in our country.  And for all the talk of “supporting our troops,” those young men and women sent into harm’s way are still paid little when you consider they’re risking their necks.

Which makes me think of another one of my Dad’s sayings: “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”  Especially if we don’t work to change them.

Remembering the Quiet, Unsung Heroes of America

My Mom and Dad
My Mom and Dad

W.J. Astore

On this Super Bowl Sunday of 2014, doubtless we’ll be hearing about the “heroes” of the gridiron.  Whichever team wins will have its “heroes” (Peyton Manning, perhaps?).  Meanwhile, remote feeds will show various military units watching the Big Game, and doubtless these troops will be touted as American heroes.  (They’re indisputably a tad more heroic than a multi-millionaire quarterback who shills everything from pizza to cars.)

But who are the real heroes of America?  I tackled this question on Memorial Day 2011 at Truthout.  For me, it’s loving, hard-working, self-sacrificing people like my parents.  I recall learning in Catholic catechism class that love is all about selfless giving — giving of yourself, freely and generously, without expecting anything in return.  That is assuredly one characteristic of a “hero.”

Here is what I wrote back in 2011.  My thanks to Truthout for publishing it back then.

This Memorial Day [2011], let’s remember and learn from our heroes who are gone from us. For me, my heroes are my parents, both of whom grew up in single-parent families during the Great Depression. Let’s start with my Mom. Our concept of “hero” today often works against moms; our culture tends to glorify our troops and other people of action: police, firefighters, and other risk-takers who help others. But to me my Mom was a hero. As a young woman, she worked long hours in a factory to help support her mother. She married at twenty-seven and quickly had four children in five years (I came along a few years later, the beneficiary of the “rhythm method” of Catholic birth control). As a full-time homemaker, she raised five children in a working-class neighborhood while struggling with intense family issues (an older son, my brother, struggled with schizophrenia, a mental disease little understood in the early 1970s).

Despite these burdens and more, my Mom was always upbeat and giving: traits that didn’t change even when she was diagnosed with cancer. She struggled against the ravages of that disease for five long years before succumbing to it in 1980. Cancer took her life but not her spirit. I never heard her once complain about the painful chemotherapy and cobalt treatments she endured.

My father too had a difficult life. He had to quit high school after the tenth grade and find a paying job to support the family. At the age of eighteen, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps and fought forest fires in Oregon; factory work followed (where he met my Mom) until that was interrupted by the draft and service in the Army during World War II. After more factory work in the latter half of the 1940s, my Dad got on the local firefighting force, serving with distinction for more than thirty years until his retirement. He died in 2003 after a heart attack and surgery, from which he never fully recovered.

America’s heroes are women and men like my Mom and Dad: the factory workers, the homemakers, the blue-collar doers and givers. And as I think about my Mom and Dad, I recall both their loving natures and their toughness. They had few illusions, and they knew how to get a tough job done, without complaint.

There’s so much we can learn from women and men like them. Personally, I’m so sick of our media and our government telling us how scared we should be — whether of violent crime or violent tornadoes or bogeyman terrorists overseas. My parents recognized the hard-won wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

But today our government prefers to abridge our rights (see the latest extension of the so-called Patriot Act) in the name of keeping us safe and less fearful, a bargain for those who exercise power, but not for tough-minded people working hard to scrape a living for their children (thanks again, Mom and Dad).

My parents weren’t worried about threats emerging from left field. They had real — and much more immediate — challenges to deal with right at home. In this spirit, I still recall my Dad talking somewhat heretically about the Cold War and the Soviet threat. His opinion: if the Americans and Soviets are stupid enough to nuke one another, a billion Chinese will pick up the slack of human civilization. No bomb shelters or ducking and covering for him. It was back to work to support the family by putting out fires in our neck of the woods.

And that’s what we need to do today as a country. We need to put fear aside and band together to put out fires in our neck of the woods. Together we can make a better country. In so doing, we’ll honor the heroic sacrifices of our families and ancestors: people like my Mom and Dad.

God bless you, Mom, Dad, and all the other quiet and unsung heroes of America.

Thanksgiving Day, November 26th, 1936

My Dad's Menu from Thanksgiving, 1936
My Dad’s Menu from Thanksgiving, 1936

W.J. Astore

In 1936, my dad was nineteen and serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, fighting forest fires in Oregon.  Due to a dry summer, 1936 was an especially bad year for fires, and my dad fought a killer one at Bandon-by-the-Sea in Oregon.  After a tough fall, he and his fellow CCC boys sat down to a well deserved Thanksgiving Dinner at Camp Brice Creek in Disston, Oregon.  My dad was a pack rat who saved everything, so I have the menu from that Thanksgiving Day.

Dad in Oregon (near the Snake River)
Dad in Oregon (near the Snake River)

So, what were the hungry young men in the CCCs eating 77 years ago?

Puree of Split Pea Soup/Ripe Olives/Hearts of Celery

Roast Oregon Tom Turkey with Cranberry Jelly, Kellogg’s Dressing, and Giblet Gravy

Snowflake Potatoes, Candied Sweet Potatoes, and Creamed Onions

Hot Rolls and Butter

Shrimp Salad

Mince Pie and Pumpkin Pie

Bananas, Apples, and Oranges

Coffee and Cider

Mixed Nuts, Assorted Candy, and Cigars

Now that sounds like a fine Thanksgiving meal.  And these men, who put their lives on the line fighting wildfires, truly deserved it.

Wherever you are, I hope readers of The Contrary Perspective are enjoying a fine Thanksgiving meal.  And let us give thanks to the men and women of our firefighting corps, who risk everything to keep us safe.

Thanks, Dad.