One day in 1999, while war was sweeping through the former Yugoslavia, I was watching television with my three-year-old son Matthew balanced on my knee. The television began broadcasting images of a burned-out bus that had been accidentally struck by a NATO missile. Matthew was too young to be upset what he was watching, but I wondered how I could ever explain any of this to him.
A few short years later our country found itself involved in yet another war, the conflict in Iraq. There was one boy from our neighborhood, a few years older than my son, who had joined the National Guard seeking direction and benefits only to find himself facing live ammunition in Iraq. And though I never asked, I often wondered, how could any father want his son to go to war?
I am certainly aware that war is a regrettable necessity in an imperfect world. The history of mankind has been steeped in war, but I would never celebrate any of the so called virtues of war without first acknowledging that at its core, no matter what the cause or justification, war represents not the greatest test and virtue of mankind, but also its greatest failure. That being said, I would also never advocate for the unilateral disarmament of our nation, which must, after all, and despite its best inclinations, exist in a world that celebrates military prowess, and tends to war at will.
But for me, there is a rub. If in a democratic society the citizens—who are not compelled to fight by a dictator—embrace war as an acceptable means for the settling of disputes among nations, then those same people cannot in good conscience hold that position without simultaneously making themselves and their children available to fight.
With this contradiction in mind, it must be said that in the United States, the all-volunteer army is not an appropriate instrument for fighting wars of our choosing. Rather, it is a convenient and immoral act of self-deceit, which enhances rather than deters the possibility of future wars. It does so by placing the vast majority of citizens at a comfortable distance from the bloody effects of the war policies they support. And it does so by undemocratically distributing the pain and suffering of war among a willing, yes, but unacceptably small segment of our society. In the roughly 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan less than 1% of the adult population of the United States has participated in the fighting.
The military establishment expresses almost universal support for the all-volunteer army. And no wonder. Tasked with the job of recruiting, training and deploying soldiers, who would not prefer a force of motivated, relatively unconflicted volunteers? It makes their job easier, cheaper and arguably more inclined toward success. Their position is similar to that of teachers who face a mandate to educate, promote and successfully test out students - wouldn’t they also prefer and benefit from “recruiting” an all-volunteer class of motivated students?
In both case the democratic notion of shared sacrifice is betrayed. Simply put, Americans do not let others do their dirty work.
There is, I fear, a cynical explanation for much of this. The military industrial complex, described by President Eisenhower before he left office in 1961, owes its existence to perpetual war—or at least the threat of it. The industry is incentivized to remain the necessary cog in the wheel of war. War is what they do, even though the country they represent has grown increasingly averse to it.
The mythology of glorious war has long since been replaced with a hard, brutal, unrelenting truth. A truth like the one my son and I saw on our television in 1999. Ironically, as the prevalence of media has expanded, war has become an abstraction to most Americans, unlike Europeans who have seen their lands host two World Wars.
Americans have been virtually untouched by the actual, physically destructive nature of war. Wolf Blitzer describe the video-game-like destruction unfolding “over there” does not deliver the same, real dose of war as let’s say seeing your school bombed, your street set afire, your neighbors incinerated. Ours is an insulated relationship to war, and my concern is that the vast majority of Americans, with no skin in the game and no exposure to the real impact of war, increasingly accept the notion of war too easily.
And that is the problem. When war beckons, an all-volunteer army is sent to a far-off land, rendering citizens passive observers at best, bloodthirsty cheerleaders at worst. And that’s just how we like it.