Year Ten. The Long War, the one perhaps morphing to Perpetual War, continues. Continues in intensity and continues to fade in the mind of American citizens focused on tea and more jubilant parties.
Not that there is anything malicious to fault in its obscuration. In fact, the road to armed competence and heretofore unquestioned military dominance has lead to this unintended consequence. The All Volunteer Military, a truly professional and skilled segment of our society, has removed the burdens and sacrifice of service from the majority of our population. The Protected are free to go about their lives, pursuing whatever talents they have to their individual and societal advantage with little thought to what an unstable country would look like. The Protectors stand on the fringes, ready to fend off foes far from the core of our culture. Yet this necessitates the two growing further apart, both in physical location as well as psychological and ideological outlook. This is little contemplated, nor addressed amidst the near universal, and admittedly impressive, cacophony of praise for our service members.
But it should be. As Professor Andrew Bacevich succinctly observes, “the evisceration of civic culture that results when a small praetorian guard shoulders the burden of waging perpetual war, while the great majority of citizens purport to revere its members, even as they ignore or profit from their service” is impossible to measure. It is hard to get revved up about something if you don’t have skin in the game.
Too often we get caught up in the well publicized ideological lines. You’ve got the no-war-at-any-cost Left and the unleash-hell-against-all-foes Right, but there is that grey area, those subtle nuances of statecraft that fall out when policymakers and their electorate become increasingly removed from the agents of action. When all you have are news cycles or heated discussions around the dinner table to lose, it is hard to see the human element of the young father charged with pacifying a village in a far off land that has never given much deference to foreigners, helpers or not.
A paradox much personally contemplated: In a recent survey, over 80 percent of Americans trust the military, little more than 40 the President, and barely 20 our United States Congress. Other surveys over the past year show a precipitous decline in support for the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why is it that there is such mass trust for individuals charged with executing unpopular orders from unpopular leaders, especially when the majority of those individuals generally believe in their given tasks and voluntarily left other lives to take part in those pursuits?
I’ll be the first to admit that consistency has never really been the forte of democratic electorates. Merely look to the jumble of contradictory Propositions passed within California over the past decades to see this play out. Yet with something as seemingly important as where we send our nation’s monetary and youthful treasure, there is the (however naïve) hope that more considered and consistent judgments would be rendered.
One of the most indelible memories I have is watching a news report during the first half of the current decade showcasing enthusiastic young supporters of military action against Global Terror. After the obligatory questions about why they supported various interventions, the interviewer wondered why these young people were not running to the enlistment centers to take part. Their answers? They had other priorities and believed their talents were better used elsewhere.
Despite the flag waving, as Bacevich notes, “the events of 9/11 reaffirmed a widespread popular preference for hiring someone else’s kid to chase terrorists, spread democracy and ensure access to the world’s energy reserve. In the midst of a global war of earth shattering importance, Americans demonstrated” an unwillingness to join with “soldiers defending the distant precincts of the American imperium.” They are willing, however, to buy you drinks if just returned from deployment.
Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that there is an irony of American history. Our perpetually preached and cherished characteristics of individualism and self-sufficiency are also the very elements most antithetical to the traits required for its defense. There was once a time when our nation’s hallowed institutions were teeming with those who recognized the implication of this. It seems, however, that in the modern age, the incessantly proclaimed qualities have been fully embraced to the exclusion of those more silently executed ones. The burden of service falls to a shrinking share of the population.
Thankfully, the embrace is not yet entirely made. As Niebuhr soberly remarks, “many young men, who have been assured that only the individual counts among us, have died upon foreign battlefields” for the sake of democracy at home. So too, have many young men with the same assurances willingly risked their lives for a compatriot in the line of fire.
Philosophical conclusions alone, however, hardly illustrate the point. So I look to the life of one of those rare people who have captured my full admiration, and indeed, someone who I aspire to emulate. He is the Captain of a company of men departing from his Midwest home to the desolation of Afghanistan on or around this very Veterans Day.
This Captain is of those who volunteered for the cooperative venture of Soldiering to preserve Individualism. A soft-spoken but charismatic giant, he has the easy smile of a man willing to undertake hardship, however reluctantly, to preserve those things he cares for most in this world. In a scene that is replayed thousands of times a year, he leaves behind a beautiful wife of five years, an eighteen month old daughter, and a newborn who he has seen for all of four days. His dedication and service saw he and his beloved parted for the first two years of their marriage while he fought in Iraq four years ago. This is the face of true advocacy for a cause.
Perhaps then, this is the answer to the survey’s seeming contradiction: the recognition and admiration of personal sacrifice despite personal and political differences. Viktor Frankel, no stranger to suffering and hardship himself, puts it best:
“Freedom is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”
Those who practice the latter element deserve our unfading societal focus.
As Americans, we must not become acclimated to conflict abroad, nor should we be passive when those charged with defending us are sent in our name. We have the distinct honor of being able to decide our nation’s future at the ballot box, and this includes how we utilize the fighting men and women who have given up the best years of their lives so we can live ours. Some wars will be necessary and seemingly interminable – others will not. In either case, remember the man or woman standing the Watch. Their footprints may be invisible, but it is in those very moments when they, and those whose shoulders they stand upon, have left their best and most lasting legacy.