Should You Join the U.S. Military?

W.J. Astore

When I was eighteen, the U.S. Army promised I could “be all that you can be.” The Navy said “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” The Marines were all about “The few — the proud — the Marines.” And the Air Force promised “a great way of life.” I guess I wanted a great way of life, so I joined the Air Force.

Seriously, I never thought I’d serve for twenty years in uniform. My career was relatively easy in the sense that no one ever shot at me, nor did I ever have to take a life. I got an excellent education, met good people, went to interesting places, and got to teach a subject I loved for six years.

Recently, I learned that a member of my family is thinking of joining the military after high school. He hasn’t asked for my advice, but his interest in wearing the uniform made me think about the advice I’d give him if he did ask. What can you say to young men and women that can help them to make an informed decision — the best possible one for them?

It’s easy to be gung-ho about the military. It’s also easy, I think, to dismiss military service with extreme prejudice. The best advice is honest, balanced, and attuned to the person seeking it. In this spirit, what would I say to a young person contemplating enlisting in the military?

Let’s tackle the disadvantages first, the downside and drawbacks to military service, the aspects of military life that potential recruits rarely think about. Here are a few of them:

  1. You could die or be seriously wounded in the military. Think of PTSD, TBI (traumatic brain injury), and similar “hidden” wounds of war. America is incessantly at war, somewhere, and there’s always a chance you could die. But of course young people think they’re immortal and may even crave danger, so this reality rarely deters them.
  2. You may have to kill other people. Perhaps even innocent people, because war is extremely messy and chaotic. Such acts of violence against humanity may lead to moral injury that will haunt your conscience. Are you prepared to kill? Truly?
  3. You sacrifice personal autonomy and some of your rights when you join the military. You have to be willing to follow orders. You can’t just quit and walk away. The military insists on obedience and discipline. Are you prepared to do as you’re told?
  4. If you think you’re important, you’re not: and the military will remind you of this. You’re a pawn in a vast bureaucracy; you’re at the mercy of a system that is often capricious and treats you as a number. You’ll quickly learn the wisdom of acronyms like SNAFU (situation normal, all fucked up) and FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition). They may sound funny, until they come to describe your life and career in the military.
  5. You may wish to ask yourself when was the last “good” or necessary war that America has fought for the purpose of true national defense. You may discover that recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere were not “good” wars in service of your Oath of Office to the U.S. Constitution. If this gives you pause, if this troubles you, I suggest you don’t enlist.
  6. Take the time to read about veterans who are against war. Consider this letter written by Daniel Hale, who is currently serving prison time for his courageous stance against the murderously imprecise nature of drone warfare. Read about Pat Tillman, the NFL player who enlisted in the Army and who was killed by friendly fire, then used as a propaganda prop by the U.S. military. Don’t think something similar can’t happen to you.

I could mention other disadvantages, such as frequent moves, nonsensical jobs, bad bosses, etc., but many civilian jobs share these. Work isn’t easy; it’s why it’s called “work.”

Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart. A bomber pilot during World War II, Stewart suffered from what we today call PTSD. A heroic man, but he’d be the first man to deny that he was a hero. Put differently, Stewart didn’t need war to make him great.

Now, how about the advantages to military service. I know that some of my readers will challenge these, and rightly so, but here are a few “positive waves” about enlisting and taking the oath:

  1. Tradition. For some enlistees, it’s about family tradition. I wasn’t from a strong military family, but my father and his two brothers served in World War II; so did my mother’s brother; and, more recently, my older brother enlisted at the tail end of the Vietnam War and three brothers-in-law also served, one in Vietnam during that horrendous war.
  2. Opportunity. The military today is respected within our society, even venerated. Serving in the military may provide you with unique opportunities both during and after your service.
  3. Teamwork. In a selfish “you can have it all” society, the military reminds us of the importance of teamwork.
  4. Idealism. Taking the Oath of Office should mean something to you. If it doesn’t, don’t enlist.
  5. Purpose, discipline, responsibility, maturity. The military isn’t the only way to live a life of purpose, a disciplined life, a life of responsibility, a life centered on growth and maturation. But, for more than a few people, the military has provided a path forward, a sense of pride and clarity, though that can come at tremendous cost, as explained above.
  6. And, of course, the normal reasons people join: pay, benefits, an opportunity to travel, to start life over, perhaps to escape a bad situation, and so on.

Enlistment, in sum, is a personal decision that must be weighed carefully. What I would say is this: remember the words of Yoda the Jedi Master. “Wars not make one great.” If you’re thinking of enlisting with a hero complex in mind, don’t do it. You’re too immature and you’re misguided to boot. Military service should be about service; it’s also about sacrifice. And you must always remember you may have to make the “ultimate” sacrifice, which is a euphemism for getting killed.

As the Outlaw Josey Wales said: Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.

You’re your own person: Do you what you think is right, and good luck.

Update (11/30/21):

This photo by Jonathan Ernst of Reuters shows the “Gold Star” tree at the White House. It’s a tribute to “the fallen” in recent wars. That expression, “the fallen,” is truly a lamentable euphemism. Of course, we should remember the dead, for which we have Memorial Day and “gardens of stone,” i.e. cemeteries. Should we also remember the dead as ornaments on a Christmas tree? I have my doubts here.

The Pentagon as Pentagod

W.J. Astore

The other day, retired General Michael Flynn called for “one religion under God” in the United States.

Ah, General Flynn, we already have one religion of militant nationalism and imperialism, and we already have one god, the Pentagod, which is the subject of my latest article for TomDispatch.com.

First, one religion. This weekend I watched the New England Patriots play the Cleveland Brown during which a Pentagon recruiting commercial broke out. The coaches wore camouflage jackets and caps, the game started with military flyovers of combat jets, and there even was a mass military swearing-in ceremony hosted by a four-star general and admiral. That same general claimed during an on-field interview during the game that the military is what keeps America free, which might just be the best definition of militarism that I’ve heard.

(Aside: In a true democracy, the military is seen as a necessary evil, because all militaries are essentially undemocratic. The goal of a true democracy is to spend as little as possible on the military while still providing for a robust defense.)

Here’s an illustration, sent by a friend, of America’s one religion:

So, according to the NFL and the mainstream media, “all of us” need to honor “our” military and indeed anyone who’s ever worn a uniform, no questions asked, apparently. I wore a military uniform for 24 years: four years as a cadet, twenty as a military officer, and I’m telling you this is nonsense — dangerous nonsense. Don’t “salute” authority. Question it. Challenge it. Hold it accountable and responsible. At the very least, be informed about it. And don’t mix sports, which is both business and entertainment, with military service and the machinery of war.

OK, so now let’s talk about America’s god. As I argue below, it certainly isn’t the Jesus Christ I learned about by reading the New Testament and studying the Gospels in CCD. America has never worshipped that god. Clearly the god we worship — at least as measured by money and societal influence — is the Pentagod, which leads me to my latest article at TomDispatch. Enjoy!

The Pentagon As Pentagod

Who is America’s god? The Christian god of the beatitudes, the one who healed the sick, helped the poor, and preached love of neighbor? Not in these (dis)United States. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we speak proudly of One Nation under God, but in the aggregate, this country doesn’t serve or worship Jesus Christ, or Allah, or any other god of justice and mercy. In truth, the deity America believes in is the five-sided one headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.

In God We Trust is on all our coins. But, again, which god? The one of “turn the other cheek”? The one who found his disciples among society’s outcasts? The one who wanted nothing to do with moneychangers or swords? As Joe Biden might say, give me a break.

America’s true god is a deity of wrath, whose keenest followers profit mightily from war and see such gains as virtuous, while its most militant disciples, a crew of losing generals and failed Washington officials, routinely employ murderous violence across the globe. It contains multitudes, its name is legion, but if this deity must have one name, citing a need for some restraint, let it be known as the Pentagod.

Yes, the Pentagon is America’s true god. Consider that the Biden administration requested a whopping $753 billion for military spending in fiscal year 2022 even as the Afghan War was cratering. Consider that the House Armed Services Committee then boosted that blockbuster budget to $778 billion in September. Twenty-five billion dollars extra for “defense,” hardly debated, easily passed, with strong bipartisan support in Congress. How else, if not religious belief, to explain this, despite the Pentagod’s prodigal $8 trillion wars over the last two decades that ended so disastrously? How else to account for future budget projections showing that all-American deity getting another $8 trillion or so over the next decade, even as the political parties fight like rabid dogs over roughly 15% of that figure for much-needed domestic improvements?

Paraphrasing Joe Biden, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you worship. In that context, there can’t be the slightest doubt: America worships its Pentagod and the weapons and wars that feed it.

Prefabricated War, Made in the U.S.A.

I confess that I’m floored by this simple fact: for two decades in which “forever war” has served as an apt descriptor of America’s true state of the union, the Pentagod has failed to deliver on any of its promises. Iraq and Afghanistan? Just the most obvious of a series of war-on-terror quagmires and failures galore.

That ultimate deity can’t even pass a simple financial audit to account for what it does with those endless funds shoved its way, yet our representatives in Washington keep doing so by the trillions. Spectacular failure after spectacular failure and yet that all-American god just rolls on, seemingly unstoppable, unquenchable, rarely questioned, never penalized, always on top.

Talk about blind faith!

To read the rest of my article, please go to TomDispatch here. Here’s my conclusion:

Yet, before I bled Air Force blue, before I was stationed in a cathedral of military power under who knows how many tons of solid granite, I was raised a Roman Catholic. Recently, I caught the words of Pope Francis, God’s representative on earth for Catholic believers. Among other entreaties, he asked “in the name of God” for “arms manufacturers and dealers to completely stop their activity, because it foments violence and war, it contributes to those awful geopolitical games which cost millions of lives displaced and millions dead.”

Which country has the most arms manufacturers? Which routinely and proudly leads the world in weapons exports? And which spends more on wars and weaponry than any other, with hardly a challenge from Congress or a demurral from the mainstream media?

And as I stared into the abyss created by those questions, who stared back at me but, of course, the Pentagod.

The Military and Conformity — and Democracy

Officers’ Wives’ Club in 1967. In the mid-1980s, I belonged to a bowling league with my military unit in Colorado. Good times.

W.J. Astore

Few people will be surprised to learn that the U.S. military is about conformity. Uniformity. Heck, it’s one reason why we wear uniforms to begin with. To a certain extent, individuality is tolerated but only if it’s harmless and doesn’t interfere with unit cohesion or performance — and, not just performance but image.

I can’t count the number of times I heard about my Air Force “family” when I wore the uniform, with the message I had to go along to get along; we’re all family, so stop grumbling and enjoy your “family” time.

A heavy stress on conformity can be a particular burden to civilian spouses, however, who didn’t necessarily think they were enlisting when their partner signed up and donned a uniform. In the bad old days, wives of officers were especially burdened with expectations. If they didn’t join officers’ wives’ clubs and otherwise “support” their husbands, they might find themselves ostracized from the “family.” Their husbands might see their careers suffer as well, not exactly a dynamic that promotes family values and amity at home.

Those bad old days are not entirely over, notes Andrea Mazzarino at TomDispatch.com, and being the wife of a U.S. Naval officer, she should know. I urge you to read her article here at TomDispatch. Nowadays, pressure takes new forms, notably on social media, that crazy 24/7/365 world, with email, Instagram, and Facebook posts (among other social sites) being scrutinized incessantly for right-thinking and right behavior, as judged by the self-anointed keepers of conformity and uniformity.

Militaries, again you won’t be surprised to learn, are not known to embrace criticism and non-conformity, which is why they should be kept as small as possible within a democracy that is supposed to celebrate or at least tolerate critiques and eccentrics. But here’s the rub: The more America celebrates its military and feeds it with money. the more it reinforces anti-democratic forces and tendencies within our larger society. And that’s not a good thing in a country where money is speech, i.e. where the richest already rule. (Which is no surprise to military members, as we all know the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.)

Here’s an excerpt from Mazzarino’s article. Believe me, she knows of what she speaks.

Eyes Are Always On You

Andrea Mazzarino

I know what it means to be watched all too carefully, a phenomenon that’s only grown worse in the war-on-terror years. I’m a strange combination, I suspect, being both a military spouse and an anti-war-on-terror activist. As I’ve discovered, the two sit uncomfortably in what still passes for one life. In this country in these years, having eyes on you has, sadly enough, become a common and widespread phenomenon. When it’s the government doing it, it’s called “surveillance.” When it’s your peers or those above you in the world of the military spouse, there’s no word for it at all.

Now, be patient with me while I start my little exploration of such an American state at the most personal level before moving on to the way in which we now live in ever more of a — yes — surveillance state.

A Navy Wife’s Perspective on Military Life, Post-9/11

“The military sounds like the mafia. Your husband’s rank determines how powerful you are.” That was a good friend’s response, a decade or so ago, when a more experienced Navy wife shamed me for revealing via text message that my husband’s nuclear submarine would soon return to port. Her spouse had been assigned to the same boat for a year longer than mine and she headed up the associated Family Readiness Group, or FRG.

Such FRGs, led by officers’ wives, are all-volunteer outfits that are supposed to support the families of the troops assigned to any boat. In a moment of thoughtless excitement, I had indeed texted another spouse, offering a hand in celebrating our husbands’ imminent return, the sort of party that, as the same woman had told me, “All wives help with to thank our guys for what they do for us. It’s key to command morale.”

She had described the signs other wives had been making under the direction of both the captain’s wife’s and hers, as well as the phone chain they had set up to let us know the moment the boat would arrive so that we could rush to the base to greet it. In response to my message, she’d replied in visibly angry form (that is, in all capital letters), “NEVER, EVER INDICATE IN ANY WAY OVER TEXT THAT THE BOAT WILL BE RETURNING SOON. YOU ARE ENDANGERING THEIR LIVES.” She added that I would be excluded from all boat activities if I ever again so much as hinted that such a return was imminent.

Alone in my apartment in a sparsely populated town near the local military base, my heart raced with the threat of further isolation. What would happen because of what I’d done?

And yes, I’d blundered, but not, as became apparent to me, in any way that truly mattered or actually endangered anything or anyone at all — nothing, in other words, that couldn’t have been dealt with in a kinder, less Orwellian fashion, given that this was a supposedly volunteer group.

It was my first little introduction to being watched and the pressure that goes with such surveillance in the world of the military spouse. Years later, when my husband was assigned to another submarine, an officer’s wife at the same naval base had burst into tears telling me about the surprise visit she’d just been paid by three women married to officers of higher rank on other boats stationed at that base.

Sitting across from her in their designer dresses, they insisted she wasn’t doing enough to raise raffle money to pay for a military child’s future education. Am I really responsible for sending another kid to college? That was her desperate question to me. Unable to keep a job, given her husband’s multiple reassignments, she had struggled simply to save enough for the education of her own children. And mind you, she was already providing weekly free childcare to fellow spouses unable to locate affordable services in that town, while counseling some wives who had become suicidal during their husbands’ long deployments.

I could, of course, multiply such examples, but you get the idea. In the war-on-terror-era military, eyes are always on you.

Married to the Military (or the Terror Within)

On paper, the American military strives to “recognize the support and sacrifice” of the 2.6 million spouses and children of active-duty troops. And there are indeed gestures in the right direction — from partnerships with employers who have committed to hiring military spouses to short-term-crisis mental-health support.

READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE HERE.

Veterans Day Is a Time to Reflect on the Purpose of Veterans

My dad (R) home on leave with his brother Gino, c. 1944

W.J. Astore

I come from a family of veterans.  My father and his two brothers served in the military during World War II.  My mother’s brother fought at Guadalcanal against the Japanese and was awarded the Bronze Star.  Later, my eldest brother enlisted in the Air Force at the tail end of the Vietnam War, which my brother-in-law had fought in as a radio operator attached to the artillery.  Their service helped to inspire my decision to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

Military service is honorable, not because of wars waged or lives taken, but because of its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  And this should be the purpose of Veterans Day: to take note of our veterans and their service in upholding the ideals of our Constitution, including freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, a right to privacy, and most of all a government that is responsive to our needs and accountable to our oversight.

Yet since World War II America has fought wars without formal Congressional declarations.  The Korean War, the Vietnam War, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, have lacked the wholehearted support of the American people.  They were arguably unnecessary wars in the sense these countries and peoples posed no direct threat to America and our Constitution.  Indeed, prosecuting these wars often posed more of a threat to that very Constitution.

Naturally, America associates veterans with wars and combat, and we say the dead made “the ultimate sacrifice,” which indeed they did.  But for what purpose, and to what end?  We owe it to veterans to ask these questions: for what purposes are we risking their lives, and to what end are these wars being waged?  If we can’t answer these simple questions, in terms intimately associated with our Constitution and the true needs of national defense, we should end these wars immediately.

Unending wars are the worst enemy of freedom and liberty.  This isn’t just my sentiment.  As James Madison put it, “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded … No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”  America once knew this; we were once a nation that was slow to anger and with little taste for large military establishments.

A few years ago, I stumbled across old sheet music in a bookstore.  Catching my eye was the title of the song: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” respectfully dedicated to “Every Mother – Everywhere.”  From 1915, this popular song captured American resistance to the calamitous “Great War” that we now call World War I.  Anti-war sentiment was strong that year in America, and indeed Woodrow Wilson would be reelected president in 1916 in large part because he had kept Americans out of the war.  The lyrics put it plainly: a mother who’d brought her son up “to be my pride and joy” didn’t want to see that same son having “to shoot some other mother’s darling boy.”

The contrast in these lyrics to recent U.S. military recruitment commercials couldn’t be starker.  In a new Department of Defense advertising campaign, featuring the catchphrase “Their success tomorrow begins with your support today,” mothers are shown incongruously in military settings asking their sons why they wanted to sign up.  Weapons are featured prominently in these ads, but no combat.  There’s much talk of teamwork and being part of something larger than yourself but no talk of the U.S. Constitution.  At the end of these spots, the young men depicted have convinced their mothers that it’s desirable indeed to have your boy become a soldier.

Recruitment ads, of course, have never been at pains to show the true costs of war.  When I was a teen, the Army’s motto was “Be all that you can be.”  For the Navy, service was about “adventure.”  For the Air Force, it was about “a great way of life.”  These ads, by ignoring or eliding war’s costs, have contributed to America’s tighter embrace of war on the world stage and its severe impact, not only on our veterans but on our democracy.  America’s strategy of “global reach, global power” has embroiled us in wars of choice that we increasingly choose not to end.  Surely, it’s time to chart a more pacific path.

Sometimes the best offense is a good defense.  On this Veterans Day, let’s remind ourselves that veterans exist to defend our Constitution and our country, but that endless warfare, and intensifying militarism, are in fact among the most pressing dangers to our democracy.    

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight

tg_promotion-to-major
Tulsi Gabbard’s promotion to major

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump attended a high school military academy.  But when the Vietnam War came calling, he developed heel spurs that kept him out of the military.  In the case of Joe Biden, it was asthma that kept him on the sidelines of that war.  Dick Cheney had multiple student deferments and “higher priorities” than serving, as he put it.  George W. Bush got a safe spot in the Texas Air National Guard.  John Kerry, ironically, did serve in the military during Vietnam but famously turned against that war.  His service was “Swift-boated” into infamy even as Bush/Cheney were being applauded by some for their alleged toughness.

When it comes to service in the military, U.S. politicians typically vote with their feet, meaning they double-time away from joining the ranks.  This is nothing new, of course.  During the U.S. Civil War, the rich could pay for substitutes if they were drafted.  When it comes to war, it’s very often a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.

Interestingly, there are two Democratic candidates who are veterans of America’s most recent wars: Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.  According to his website, Mayor Pete “served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and took an unpaid seven-month leave during his mayoral term to deploy to Afghanistan. For his counterterrorism work, he earned the Joint Service Commendation Medal.”  Sounds impressive, yet a “joint service commendation medal” is a standard-issue medal for any company-grade officer who completes such an assignment without screwing up in a major way.  It’s a little like a participation trophy in a Little League tournament.

Despite Mayor Pete’s fairly limited military experience, his web site boasts that if he’s elected president, he’ll take office with the most military experience since George H.W. Bush, who served in the U.S. Navy in combat during World War II.

Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s military record is far more extensive than Mayor Pete’s.  She joined the Army National Guard soon after 9/11 and deployed to Iraq during some of the most bitter fighting in that country.  She’s currently a major in the Guard and has spoken extensively about how her military service informs her positions against wasteful, regime-change, wars.  According to her web site, “Having experienced first-hand the true cost of war, Tulsi made a personal vow to find a way to ensure that our country doesn’t continue repeating the mistakes of the past, sending our troops into war without a clear mission, strategy, or purpose.”

Tonight, there’s yet another Democratic debate featuring Mayor Pete as well as Congresswoman Gabbard.  It will be interesting to see if they’re called on specifically for their views on military issues, such as Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria.

In fact, I’d like to hear the views of all twelve Democrats on that stage tonight on the question of America’s forever wars, and why these wars have illustrated that old story of war being in the service of the rich even as the poor pay the ultimate price.  Given America’s supine Congress, our presidents have enormous power over life and death in making war across the globe.  When are we going to rein that power in?  When are we going to stop fighting foolish and destructive wars that have nothing to do with safeguarding America?

Until we honestly — even ruthlessly — address these questions, America will continue to witness generational wars for the rich fought by the poor.

Memorial Day 1955 — And Today

wall
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

W.J. Astore

How far we’ve come as a country.  Consider the following proclamation by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for Memorial Day in 1955:

“Whereas Memorial Day each year serves as a solemn reminder of the scourge of war and its bitter aftermath of sorrow; and Whereas this day has traditionally been devoted to paying homage to loved ones who lie in hallowed graves throughout the land… I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, Monday, the thirtieth of May, 1955, as a day of Nation-wide prayer for permanent peace.”

Permanent peace?  What was that hippie peacenik president smoking?

I find it remarkable that talk of peace in America has almost completely disappeared from our public discourse.  Permanent war is instead seen as inevitable, the price of confronting evildoers around the world.

Yes, I know Ike’s record as president wasn’t perfect.  But compared to today’s presidents, whether Barack “Kill List” Obama or Donald “Make Genocidal Threats” Trump, Ike was positively pacific.

Memorial Day, as Ike said, is a time for us all to remember the sacrifices of those who fought and died for this country.  But it’s also a time, as Ike said, to work to eliminate the scourge of war.  For the best way to honor our war dead is to work to ensure their ranks aren’t expanded.

Sadly, as Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich notes at TomDispatch.com, those ranks do keep expanding.  The names of our latest war dead are memorialized on a little-known wall in Marseilles, Illinois (including the name of Bacevich’s son, who died serving in Iraq).  Like Ike, Bacevich knows the costs of war, and like Ike he’s not taken in by patriotic talk about noble sacrifices for “freedom.”  As he puts it:

Those whose names are engraved on the wall in Marseilles died in service to their country. Of that there is no doubt. Whether they died to advance the cause of freedom or even the wellbeing of the United States is another matter entirely. Terms that might more accurately convey why these wars began and why they have persisted for so long include oil, dominion, hubris, a continuing and stubborn refusal among policymakers to own up to their own stupendous folly, and the collective negligence of citizens who have become oblivious to where American troops happen to be fighting at any given moment and why. Some might add to the above list an inability to distinguish between our own interests and those of putative allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Those are strong words that all Americans should consider this Memorial Day weekend.  As we consider them, let’s also recall Ike’s 1955 prayer for peace.  And, even better, let’s act on it.

Read the rest of Andrew Bacevich’s article here at TomDispatch.

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Part of the Middle East Conflicts Memorial Wall in Marseilles, Illinois

Ending America’s Cult of the Warrior-Hero

IMG_1656
A letter to my dad from 1945

W.J. Astore

Every now and again I look over my dad’s letters from World War II.  He was attached to an armored headquarters company that didn’t go overseas, but he had friends who did serve in Europe during and after the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.  Also, he had two brothers, one who served in Europe attached to a quartermaster (logistics) company in the Army, the other who served in the Pacific as a Marine.

Reading my dad’s letters and those from his friends and brothers, you get a sense of the costs of war.  They mention friends who’ve been killed or wounded in action; for example, a soldier who lost both his legs when his tank ran over a mine.  (His fellow soldiers took up a collection for him.)  They talk about strange things they’ve seen overseas, e.g. German buzz bombs or V-1 rockets, a crude version of today’s cruise missiles.  They look forward to furloughs and trips to cities such as Paris.  They talk about bad weather: cold, snow, mud.  They talk about women (my dad’s brother, Gino, met a Belgian girl that he wanted to marry, but it was not to be).  But perhaps most of all, they look forward to the war’s end and express a universal desire to ditch the military for civilian life.

All of my dad’s friends wanted to get out of the military and restart their civilian lives.  They didn’t want a military career — not surprising for draftees who thought of themselves as citizen-soldiers (emphasis on the citizen).  In their letters, they never refer to themselves as “warriors” or “warfighters” or “heroes,” as our society is wont to do today when talking about the troops.  War sucked, and they wanted no part of it.  One guy was happy, as he put it, that the Germans were getting the shit kicked out of them, and another guy was proud his armored unit had a “take no prisoners” approach to war, but this animus against the enemy was motivated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible.

Reading these letters written by citizen-soldiers of the “greatest generation” reminds me of how much we’ve lost since the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of the “all volunteer” military.  Since the 9/11 attacks in particular, we’ve witnessed the rise of a warrior/warfighter ideal in the U.S. military, together with an ethos that celebrates all troops as “heroes” merely for the act of enlisting and putting on a uniform.  My dad and his friends would have scoffed at this ethos — this idolization of “warriors” and “heroes” — as being foreign to a citizen-soldier military.  Back then, the country that boasted most of warriors and heroes was not the USA: it was Nazi Germany.

Discarding the citizen-soldier ideal for a warrior ethos has been and remains a major flaw of America’s post-Vietnam military.  It has exacerbated America’s transition from a republic to an empire, even as America’s very own wannabe Roman emperor, Donald Trump, tweets while America burns.

Men (and women) of the greatest generation served proudly if reluctantly during World War II.  They fought to end the war as quickly as possible, and they succeeded.  America’s endless wars today and our nation’s rampant militarization dishonor them and their sacrifices.  If we wish to honor their service and sacrifice, we should bring our troops home, downsize our empire and our military budget, and end our wars.

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.

Uncle Sam Doesn’t Want You — He Already Has You

Uncle Sam wants us.  But who, exactly, is Uncle Sam?
Uncle Sam — He Already Has Us

The Militarized Realities of Fortress America

By William J. Astore (Featured at TomDispatch.com)

I spent four college years in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and then served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force.  In the military, especially in basic training, you have no privacy.  The government owns you.  You’re “government issue,” just another G.I., a number on a dogtag that has your blood type and religion in case you need a transfusion or last rites.  You get used to it.  That sacrifice of individual privacy and personal autonomy is the price you pay for joining the military.  Heck, I got a good career and a pension out of it, so don’t cry for me, America.

But this country has changed a lot since I joined ROTC in 1981, was fingerprinted, typed for blood, and otherwise poked and prodded. (I needed a medical waiver for myopia.)  Nowadays, in Fortress America, every one of us is, in some sense, government issue in a surveillance state gone mad.

Unlike the recruiting poster of old, Uncle Sam doesn’t want you anymore — he already has you.  You’ve been drafted into the American national security state.  That much is evident from Edward Snowden’s revelations. Your email?  It can be read.  Your phone calls?  Metadata about them is being gathered.  Your smartphone?  It’s a perfect tracking device if the government needs to find you.  Your computer?  Hackable and trackable.  Your server?  It’s at their service, not yours.

Many of the college students I’ve taught recently take such a loss of privacyfor granted.  They have no idea what’s gone missing from their lives and so don’t value what they’ve lost or, if they fret about it at all, console themselves with magical thinking — incantations like “I’ve done nothing wrong, so I’ve got nothing to hide.”  They have little sense of how capricious governments can be about the definition of “wrong.”

Consider us all recruits, more or less, in the new version of Fortress America, of an ever more militarized, securitized country.  Renting a movie?  Why not opt for the first Captain America and watch him vanquish the Nazis yet again, a reminder of the last war we truly won?  Did you head for a baseball park on Memorial Day?  What could be more American or more innocent?  So I hope you paid no attention to all those camouflaged caps and uniforms your favorite players were wearing in just another of an endless stream of tributes to our troops and veterans.

Let’s hear no whining about militarized uniforms on America’s playing fields.  After all, don’t you know that America’s real pastime these last years has been war and lots of it?

Be a Good Trooper

Think of the irony.  The Vietnam War generated an unruly citizen’s army that reflected an unruly and increasingly rebellious citizenry.  That proved more than the U.S. military and our ruling elites could take.  So President Nixon ended the draft in 1973 and made America’s citizen-soldier ideal, an ideal that had persisted for two centuries, a thing of the past.  The “all-volunteer military,” the professionals, were recruited or otherwise enticed to do the job for us.  No muss, no fuss, and it’s been that way ever since. Plenty of war, but no need to be a “warrior,” unless you sign on the dotted line.  It’s the new American way.

But it turned out that there was a fair amount of fine print in the agreement that freed Americans from those involuntary military obligations.  Part of the bargain was to “support the pros” (or rather “our troops”) unstintingly and the rest involved being pacified, keeping your peace, being a happy warrior in the new national security state that, particularly in the wake of 9/11, grew to enormous proportions on the taxpayer dollar.  Whether you like it or not, you’ve been drafted into that role, so join the line of recruits and take your proper place in the garrison state.

If you’re bold, gaze out across the increasingly fortified and monitoredborders we share with Canada and Mexico.  (Remember when you could cross those borders with no hassle, not even a passport or ID card?  I do.)  Watch for those drones, home from the wars and already hovering in or soon to arrive in your local skies — ostensibly to fight crime.  Pay due respect to your increasingly up-armored police forces with their automatic weapons, their special SWAT teams, and their converted MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles).  These vintage Iraqi Freedom vehicles are now military surplus given away or sold on the cheap to local police departments.  Be careful to observe their draconian orders for prison-like “lockdowns” of your neighborhood or city, essentially temporary declarations of martial law, all for your safety and security.

Be a good trooper and do what you’re told.  Stay out of public areas when you’re ordered to do so.  Learn to salute smartly.  (It’s one of the first lessons I was taught as a military recruit.)  No, not that middle-finger salute, you aging hippie.  Render a proper one to those in authority.  You had best learn how.

Or perhaps you don’t even have to, since so much that we now do automatically is structured to render that salute for us.  Repeated singings of “God Bless America” at sporting events.  Repeated viewings of movies that glorify the military.  (Special Operations forces are a hot topic in American multiplexes these days from Act of Valor to Lone Survivor.)  Why not answer the call of duty by playing militarized video games like Call of Duty?  Indeed, when you do think of war, be sure to treat it as a sport, a movie, a game.

Surging in America 

I’ve been out of the military for nearly a decade, and yet I feel more militarized today than when I wore a uniform.  That feeling first came over me in 2007, during what was called the “Iraqi surge” — the sending of another 30,000 U.S. troops into the quagmire that was our occupation of that country. It prompted my first article for TomDispatch.  I was appalled by the way our civilian commander-in-chief, George W. Bush, hid behind the beribboned chest of his appointed surge commander, General David Petraeus, to justify his administration’s devolving war of choice in Iraq.  It seemed like the eerie visual equivalent of turning traditional American military-civilian relationships upside down, of a president who had gone over to the military.  And it worked.  A cowed Congress meekly submitted to “King David” Petraeus and rushed to cheer his testimony in support of further American escalation in Iraq.

Since then, it’s become a sartorial necessity for our presidents to donmilitary flight jackets whenever they address our “warfighters” as a sign both of their “support” and of the militarization of the imperial presidency.  (For comparison, try to imagine Matthew Brady taking a photo of “honest Abe” in the Civil War equivalent of a flight jacket!)  It is now de rigueur for presidents to praise American troops as “the finest military in world history” or, as President Obama typically said to NBC’s Brian Williams in aninterview from Normandy last week, “the greatest military in the world.”  Even more hyperbolically, these same troops are celebrated across the country in the most vocal way possible as hardened “warriors” andbenevolent freedom-bringers, simultaneously the goodest and the baddest of anyone on the planet — and all without including any of the ugly, as in the ugliness of war and killing.  Perhaps that explains why I’ve seen military recruitment vans (sporting video game consoles) at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  Given that military service is so beneficent, why not get the country’s 12-year-old prospects hopped up on the prospect of joining the ranks?

Too few Americans see any problems in any of this, which shouldn’t surprise us.  After all, they’re already recruits themselves.  And if the prospect of all this does appall you, you can’t even burn your draft card in protest, so better to salute smartly and obey.  A good conduct medal will undoubtedly be coming your way soon.

It wasn’t always so.  I remember walking the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts, in my freshly pressed ROTC uniform in 1981.  It was just six years after the Vietnam War ended in defeat and antiwar movies likeComing HomeThe Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now were still fresh in people’s minds.  (First Blood and the Rambo “stab-in-the-back” myth wouldn’t come along for another year.)  I was aware of people looking at me not with hostility, but with a certain indifference mixed occasionally with barely disguised disdain.  It bothered me slightly, but even then I knew that a healthy distrust of large standing militaries was in the American grain.

No longer.  Today, service members, when appearing in uniform, are universally applauded and repetitiously lauded as heroes.

I’m not saying we should treat our troops with disdain, but as our history has shown us, genuflecting before them is not a healthy sign of respect.  Consider it a sign as well that we really are all government issue now.

Shedding a Militarized Mindset

If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider an old military officer’s manual I still have in my possession.  It’s vintage 1950, approved by that great American, General George C. Marshall, Jr., the man most responsible for our country’s victory in World War II.  It began with this reminder to the newly commissioned officer: “[O]n becoming an officer a man does not renounce any part of his fundamental character as an American citizen.  He has simply signed on for the post-graduate course where one learns how to exercise authority in accordance with the spirit of liberty.”  That may not be an easy thing to do, but the manual’s aim was to highlight the salutary tension between military authority and personal liberty that was the essence of the old citizen’s army.

It also reminded new officers that they were trustees of America’s liberty, quoting an unnamed admiral’s words on the subject: “The American philosophy places the individual above the state.  It distrusts personal power and coercion.  It denies the existence of indispensable men.  It asserts the supremacy of principle.”

Those words were a sound antidote to government-issue authoritarianism and militarism — and they still are.  Together we all need to do our bit, not as G.I. Joes and Janes, but as Citizen Joes and Janes, to put personal liberty and constitutional principles first.  In the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who toldSoviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this [Berlin] wall,” isn’t it time to begin to tear down the walls of Fortress America and shed our militarized mindsets?  Future generations of citizens will thank us, if we have the courage to do so.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular, edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.

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Copyright 2014 William J. Astore

“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.