Michael R. Auslin -- On Memorial Day, Remembering the Old Army Buddy

By Michael R. Auslin
Sunday, May 24, 2009

A few years ago, my father suddenly announced that he wanted to give a substantial sum of money to someone who had fallen on hard times. The intended recipient of this charity, which was not insignificant for our family, was not a relative, a neighbor or a work colleague. It was one of my dad's old buddies from his Army service in the 1950s, who was ill and in need of help. I still remember being amazed that my father could feel such empathy for someone with whom he had served in peacetime nearly half a century earlier. Yet for him, helping a former comrade in arms was a sacred charge.

Today, as a new Greatest Generation emerges in Iraq and Afghanistan, a unique Ameri can species is beginning to disappear: the Old Army Buddy, the men who served in the U.S. armed forces in the 1950s and early '60s. They were the soldiers who protected American interests at the height of the Cold War, yet for the most part never fired a shot in combat. Most of those remaining are now past 70, and when they go, so will the last links to an era of mandatory national service that helped shape mid-20th-century America.

From the 1940s through the early 1970s, a generation of Americans accepted compulsory military service as a responsibility of citizenship. In war and in peace, Americans of different economic classes and ethnicities served together, forming relationships that lasted a lifetime, even when the vets had little else in common. With today's all-volunteer force, our military is more professional, but the mixing of different groups has diminished, and American society has lost the sense of the virtue of national service.

My father's older brothers and brothers-in-law all served in World War II, and the terrors they and their comrades shared bound them together for the rest of their lives. With the wars won but the peace still to be fought, their younger brothers and nephews were conscripted to serve around the globe. Nearly 1.5 million men were drafted during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, and they were the last to soldier in a time when the idea of national service was universally accepted. And "universal" was no exaggeration: The most famous draftee of the time was Elvis Presley, who mustered in at the height of his fame in 1958 and came out a tamed 25-year-old veteran two years later.

As these peacetime draftees were discharged, they formed a unique post-military culture that has been a staple of American life since the 1960s. The vets were a civilian band of brothers who often fondly remembered their Army service as the last moment of freedom before the unending responsibilities of adulthood. My father, who had never before been outside the United States, served in Japan. Like millions of his buddies, he saw a world that he otherwise would not have encountered and one that, due to the demands of family and career, he would never revisit.

It will be hard to describe to my now 9-year-old son what it was like to grow up in America in the 1970s. That was a time not only when World War II veterans were in their prime, but also when almost everyone's father had served in peacetime, and when the older boys in the neighborhood were just returning from Vietnam. Retired military presence was everywhere. Our grade school principal, our rabbi and our local shopkeeper had all worn the uniform, which could often be found, like my father's, stuffed into a footlocker in a basement workshop. My friends and I knew that these were men far more experienced than we, and we all instinctively gave them our respect, if not always our obedience.

Back then, every family included at least one war veteran whose dark refusal to talk about combat only emboldened our young imaginations. Balancing him, however, was the Old Army Buddy (I'm sure there were Old Navy Buddies and Old Air Force Buddies, but no one ever referred to them). The Army buddy was a person of mystery, a rarely sighted being. No "real" such person lived in our neighborhood -- they came from places my brother and I had only read about, like San Diego or Phoenix or Miami. But Old Army Buddies were famous for simply showing up, sometimes unannounced, and suddenly changing everything in the house.

I can still remember when any of my father's old buddies came to visit our suburban Chicago household. My mother would bring down the dusty bottle of Japanese sake kept in the back closet, while my father set up the slide machine and unearthed the knickknacks he had brought home two decades earlier. We'd have a special dinner and stay up late listening to old tales. Once, my father and his buddy spent the entire evening recalling the dire effects of eating local vegetables that had been grown in untreated animal manure; my brother and I swore off carrots for weeks afterward. Sadly, we'd be ushered out of the room for the best stories.

Those visits were magical, because his buddies revealed another side of my father to me -- not merely his youthful experiences, but also his vitality, his hopes. My father became happily human, reliving the good old days and maybe being reminded of just how well things had turned out. This was a scene repeated in homes around the country during my childhood.

Not all the men who visited were happy. Some would show up just after divorces, others after losing jobs. One of my father's closest buddies had not only gone through a nasty separation, but one of his sons had also tragically died early in an accident. That, too, was a lesson, a way of learning that things don't always turn out right.

The Old Army Buddy even became a stereotype, gently mocked in such television shows as the old Dick Van Dyke Show of the 1960s, in which staid, middle-class Rob Petrie stood in contrast to his ribald, shady or simply odd former comrades. And no buddy was odder than the one Christopher Walken portrayed decades later in the movie "Pulp Fiction." Yet the Old Army Buddy was also proof that there had been a time when one left home and family to serve the country without a second thought. My father always seemed to have a different view of the United States from me -- he had served with people from every corner, every religion, every background. He seemed to understand the idea of citizenship better than I ever could.

As I grew older, and the Army buddy visits died out, I became more cynical. Had my father really liked his old Army buddies? Did he truly feel part of a larger citizenry? Had the Army dispelled his native prejudices?

Of course not, or at least not always and not in all cases. But my father nevertheless belongs to the last full generation of Americans forced to serve their country, who had no choice but to work and live with others radically different from themselves. I had no such experience and could only look upon my father and his old buddies as men of a different sort from my friends and me. My generation, and my son's, can go through life largely choosing exactly whom we will consort with and to what degree. That lends an enduring parochialism to most of our lives, despite America's size and diversity.

My father and his Old Army Buddies are grandfathers now, in their mid-70s, and there is no one with the same experiences left to follow them. Even the all-volunteer force in place since 1973 is different. It was created after widespread Vietnam-era protests against the draft broke down the longstanding consensus in favor of compulsory service. Today's warriors are young men and women who choose the military. Many will raise their families in base towns with thousands of others like them, and their children will grow up surrounded by military talk and culture. They also increasingly share a common worldview: Nearly 65 percent of today's officers identify themselves as Republican, whereas civilians are essentially divided in half politically.

This potential social gulf is not just the military's doing. The vast majority of our government leaders, grade-school teachers and university professors, media elites and top chief executives have no military experience. Today, only one-fourth of the members of Congress are veterans, compared with the 75 percent who had served three decades ago. There is little doubt that the public strongly supports the military, but some studies also indicate that it views the all-volunteer force as a foreign culture.

Their professional status undoubtedly gives our current armed forces a greater cohesion than anything the old draft could have accomplished. And yet the self-selecting nature of today's warriors is a constant reminder that most of us owe our freedoms to a select few who are willing to protect them. Unlike our fathers, we are not called to give even a small portion of our lives to the defense of our country, and I, like most of my generation, chose not to do so. It is unclear whether a large, diverse society can survive indefinitely without that sense of service to the nation and that experience in social bonding; this experiment is only a few decades old, and the results are not yet in.

Yet as much as the change to an all-volunteer Army may have deep social portents, it also means, on a more personal note, that most American children will probably never run out of their rooms with surprise and pleasure because "Uncle" Jim from Tucson has just dropped his suitcase in the front hall and tonight, no homework will get done.


Michael R. Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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