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.

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.

Fighting Forest Fires

A firefighter of Alcoy and Elda tries to

Very sad news coming out of Arizona: the loss of nineteen firefighters as they fought valiantly against wildfires started by lightning.  My Dad fought forest fires in Oregon in the mid-1930s when he was in the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC.  He once worked nearly 24 hours straight on a fire line to contain a blaze.  He confessed he volunteered for the extra shift because he was in part too scared to sleep with the fire so close and so unpredictable.

Fire is protean, capricious, an almost living thing.  Fire is truly “wild.”  Small wonder we have nightmares about fire-breathing monsters or the fires of hell.  It’s takes tough and courageous men and women to face down fire, to confront it, to try to contain it.  Not only do you face the hell of heat and flames, but also the dangers of choking and blinding smoke and collapsing (even exploding) trees.

Here’s an excerpt from my father’s journal about some of the wildfires he fought in the 1930s:

We also fought a 10,000 acre fire in the foothills of Mt. Rainier in the State of Washington.  Mt. Rainier is a pretty impressive mountain and over 14,000 feet high.   A bus took us from Enterprise Oregon via the highway that followed the Columbia River for over 400 miles.  The whole trip to the fire was 600 miles.  Talk about scenery; very breathtaking.  Off the highway you could see plenty of waterfalls and minor streams that flowed into the Columbia River.

 Another big fire we fought burnt to the edge of the Pacific Ocean.  We were discussing the fact, all that ocean water but we couldn’t put it on the fire.

 Oddities: Two CCC boys were killed because a truck ran off a mountain road because visibility was bad with smoke and fog.

 Also, we built a fire trail and we were going to start a backfire to the main fire.  We couldn’t start a fire because of mist that wet the area that we wanted to burn.  Where the fire was approaching you could hear the burning trees and snags falling.  You looked towards the fire but you couldn’t see anything on account of the smog.  We went to another area.  Later when the sun came out and it cleared the fire went out of control again.

Work on the fire line was exhausting, even for men in the prime of life, as my father knew:

We were in the area of the North Fork of the Pistol River.  Our crew was resting.  It was a flat area, heavily wooded, miles from anything.  One end of the stream had narrowed because of a sandbar and formed a pool that was a hundred yards long and about twenty yards wide.  There was about a twenty-foot-high rock ledge on one bank.  What a beautiful natural swimming pool.  The water was cold and clear as crystal.  The ranger said if you wanted to go in for a swim, go ahead.  No one went in; the answer must be because we were too tired. 

Amazing, isn’t it, that young men were so exhausted after fighting fires that they didn’t have the energy to jump in a stream-fed pool of cool water?

We owe a debt to firefighters around the world for the dangers they confront when taking on fire.  True heroes, indeed.

W.J. Astore