The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes From Military Service -- and How It Hurts Our Country
By Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer
Collins. 241 pp. $24.95
In World War I, the United States imposed a military draft for a reason that seems strange today: to prevent too many of the nation's most privileged citizens from rushing toward the sound of the guns. A draft would spread sacrifice beyond the elite, went the argument, and ensure that the country didn't lose too many future leaders. Contrast this with the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, when the New York Civil Liberties Union challenged a federal law allowing military recruiters to contact graduating seniors at public high schools. "Students," the organization's executive director said, "have a right to not be bothered by aggressive military recruiters."
How did we change from a nation where military service was a duty of citizenship -- akin to paying taxes or serving on a jury -- to one where simply being asked to consider time in uniform is an infringement of civil rights?
In their compelling and inspiring cri de coeur , Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer trace this societal shift, arguing that the schism between America's military and its opinion-making class threatens the nation's welfare. Both authors qualify as opinion-makers, and both have personal connections to the military. Roth-Douquet, a self-described "former agitator, feminist, Ivy Leaguer, Clintonite," is married to a Marine pilot. Schaeffer, a novelist, painter and film-maker, saw his plans for his children -- "top college, good grades, smart jobs, wife/husband, Subaru/Volvo, membership at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, IRA started early, kids, college fund" -- derail when his youngest son enlisted in the Marines after high school.
That their stories are rare is a recent phenomenon. In 1956, 400 of Princeton's 750 graduates served in uniform. By 2004, only nine members of the university's graduating class entered the military. Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia and many other schools do not even allow ROTC on their campuses. The gulf is growing in Congress, too. In 1971, three-quarters of our representatives had military experience. Now, fewer than a third do, and that number drops with each passing year. Some citizens see no problem with this. We are indeed fortunate not to live in a militarized society, and our hyper-capable armed forces enjoy, at least superficially, broad support from the American people.
But Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer, who've written the book in alternating sections, unite to argue convincingly that there are at least three dangerous consequences of a civil-military divide. First, it hurts the nation's ability to make sound military choices. Uniformed service is not a prerequisite for individual expertise in the conduct of war. Abraham Lincoln -- arguably America's greatest wartime president -- never served in uniform (although he spent three months in an Illinois militia). In the aggregate, however, we benefit from having veterans in every corner of our decision-making apparatus: as presidential advisers, members of Congress and active citizens. Without them, our civilian leaders embody less and less of that visceral wisdom forged in harm's way, and the problem perpetuates itself: If young people don't serve today, then we won't have older veterans in leadership positions tomorrow.
Second, a schism between the military and the rest of us weakens the armed forces. Absent broad and deep ties throughout society, the military becomes "them" instead of "us." Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer fear that such a force "will be overused and underled and that support will run out fast for any project that becomes a political liability." Consider that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, unlike most political leaders today, both had children in uniform in the Second World War. Whether such personal connections actually affect policy is almost impossible to say, but common sense supports the authors' assertion that "the grunt on the ground is best equipped, best trained, and best served when the opinion makers have a personal stake in his or her well-being."
The greatest problem with an isolated military, however, is even less tangible. "When those who benefit most from living in a country contribute the least to its defense and those who benefit least are asked to pay the ultimate price, something happens to the soul of that country," write the authors. That argument makes for the most powerful reading in the book: "We are shortchanging a generation of smart, motivated Americans who have been prejudiced against service by parents and teachers. Their parents may think they are protecting their children. Their teachers may think they are enlightening them. But perhaps what these young people are being protected from is maturity, selflessness, and the kind of ownership of their country that can give it a better future."
In pointing the way to this better future, the authors place great value on the bully pulpits of public life. "Ask not what your country can do for you" is a long way from our government's post-9/11 exhortation "to live your lives." AWOL 's most heartening conclusion -- that today's young Americans would be willing to put service to country ahead of personal gain -- is also its most maddening, because they haven't been called. "I don't want to draft" young people, Roth-Douquet declares. "I'd like to do something even more radical. I'd like to ask them to serve." A good first step would be asking their parents and teachers to read this important book. ·
Nathaniel Fick served as a Marine infantryman in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the author of "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer."