Friday, June 24, 2005

The Myth of the Military as a Democratizing Force in America

One of the more interesting things about the Gilliard attacks is how much they have bought into the idea of the military as having traditionally represented a broad cross-section of American society and how that has now changed to where the military is a repository for the poor who can't find better jobs.

The reality is that with the exception of one very prominent period in American history, it has always been very similar to that.

That exception of course is World War II. The myths of World War II have seeped deeply into all aspects of American culture and life. From the idea of the greatest generation to the idea that using the atomic bomb on Japan saved a million American lives, we are deeply influenced today by myths coming out of that titanic conflict. During World War II, the military really did represent nearly every male in American society. This was a time when the rich and the poor served together, when people from Harvard enlisted as privates, and when men from around the country became exposed to men from other parts of the country through military service. This is all true. The myth comes from the idea that this how the military has always been.

Both before World War II and after the end of the draft in the 1970s, the military attracted two kinds of people. It attracted the middle and upper classes into the officer corps. And it attracted people with absolutely no other options into the enlisted class. Now the military is not as class stratified today as it was in 1880. The officer corps does recruit people of ability from all classes, but there's no doubt that the officers are made up mostly of the middle and upper-middle classes. And the enlisted personnel, while they do consist of many people with no better option, also still have a lot of middle-class kids who choose the military because they wanted to. But this latter point is changing. It's these kids who are not signing up because of Iraq. So the military is likely to become more class stratified over the next few years if this trend continues.

Should the military be like this? Well, I don't know. Being a soldier is not necessarily a very good job. It doesn't really pay that well. It can put you in significant danger. On the other hand, you can make a pretty good career out of it and move from the very poor into the lower middle class if you stick it out for 20 years. And there's not a lot of jobs which can do that for you. Even during the most violent and intense war in American history, the Civil War, the wealthy in the North and the South did what they could to get poorer people to fight for them, leading among other things to the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. In any case, I don't see a real good option for a lot of kids other than the military and I suppose that I'm OK with that. Yes, I would rather have a better educational system where kids would have more options. I would rather have a classless society where merit decided everything and money nothing. But you know what, even if we did have such a society, we would still need a military and we would still have to find people to be in that military. And how are you going to do this? The rhetoric behind these discussions is that if we had better education, opportunity, and equality, then people wouldn't have to join the military. But we would still need a military so what's the answer.

The only way to get away from a class-stratified military is to have a draft. I don't generally support a draft but I can see its merits. This is the one solution for a democratic military. But of course, Steve Gilliard and the myriads of negative commentators who talk about the undemocratic military and asking poor kids to die for you would be highly unlikely to agree to this. For then they couldn't hide behind their rhetoric and their accusations of cowardice. They would have to play an active role in this democratic military whether they supported the actions of the military or not.

This is the only way to change the military back to representing all of America.