DLC | Blueprint Magazine | May 17, 2006
Those Who Serve: America's educated and professional elites know little about the military, and the idea of serving is alien to them. How did this happen?
By Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer
Adapted from the book AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service -- and How It Hurts Our Country .
Copyright (c) 2006, by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer. Published by arrangement with Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Since the late 1990s, all major polls have shown the military to be one of the most trusted American institutions -- ahead of Congress, the media, even churches. It has become a mantra to be "proud of the men and women who serve in the military." Even anti-war groups and pacifists routinely pay homage to "our men and women in uniform." Yet most men and women in uniform are strangers to the most influential segment of society. Mark Shields, a syndicated columnist, former Marine, and PBS pundit, noted in an essay that "probably nobody at any Washington dinner party tonight -- liberal or conservative, Bush appointee, or Democratic holdover -- personally knows any enlisted man or woman now defending the nation."
Not too long ago, the sons of presidents, bankers, and oilmen regularly served. In the 1950s, about one-half of the graduating classes of Princeton and Harvard entered the service for a tour of duty. Today, less than 1 percent do. Likewise, in 2003 only slightly more than 1 percent of members of Congress had a child serving. This is not a Democrat-versus-Republican issue. It is a class issue. Small-town, religious, and middle-class Democrats or Republicans are more likely to have someone in the military in their extended social group than wealthy partisans of either party living in big cities.
This yawning gap between the opinion makers -- the cultural, professional, and business elites -- and the military is harming us as a country. The gap hurts us in three ways: our country's ability to make the best policy possible; the strength of our civilian leadership, which no longer has the experience and wisdom that comes from national service; and by making our military less strong in the long run.
Neither of the authors of this book served in the military. We were raised in a privileged culture that misunderstands and underestimates the meaning of military service. As we came to understand and appreciate the military, it was striking to us how ignorant we had been. People like us -- educated, urban, in careers where you make good money, and interested in the good life, good food, travel -- know nothing about the military. This book is our attempt to figure out what happened to us. It is also a declaration of love for a husband and a son and a statement of respect for the choice they made.
The Marines borrowed my boy and returned him a man, and in the process made me a little bit better person. My son grew up during five years of service and two combat tours. So did I.
Living on Boston's North Shore, filled with tweedy people living stodgy lives in the shadow of Harvard, I never imagined that my son, John, would begin talking to Marine recruiters before graduation from a private high school. I never imagined he could do something that I then regarded as insanely self-destructive. When he announced at graduation that he was going into the Marines, the other parents would not look in our direction. Their kids had all named top colleges they would be attending.
"What a waste," commented a parent seated near me.
"We should carefully evaluate what went wrong," said another parent, a professor of history.
Later, when my neighbors asked about where John was in school, I hastened to mention my other two very successful children. Yet I felt like Judas. I finally started to understand that it was degrading to have to justify John's being a Marine to people who struck me as snobs -- people like me who never lifted a finger for anybody. We didn't "do" selfless. We were selfish. Finally, John's service threw my life into sharp perspective in a new way. He connected our family to our country in a deep way.
Nothing in today's culture would have predicted that I would be at home on a military base. I was raised in an upper-middle-class neighborhood where a high-achieving Jewish child could grow up to be anything he or she wanted to be. Shaker Heights, Ohio, was proud of its SAT scores and the racial and religious diversity of its professional families. The civics lessons that loomed largest in the minds of the class of '82 were the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and Watergate. The moral seemed to be that one should distrust authority figures -- not a lesson that leads people to serve a tour of military duty.
Only when I got a graduate degree from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University did I, for the first time, encounter military people I knew by name. And it was my time as a staffer in the Clinton White House that opened my eyes to the role of the U.S. military in the world. I came into contact with more military people than ever before. My view of military people began to change.
After leaving the White House, I went on to work for a billionaire philanthropist, living in Manhattan near Gracie Mansion, with a view of the East River. So there I was: former agitator, feminist, Ivy Leaguer, Clintonite, now an Upper East Sider with a car service and an expense account -- not your usual future "Marine wife" material. But I had not counted on falling in love and marrying "my" Marine, an officer and a pilot.
From the earliest days of my marriage, people asked little questions, probing how it could happen that someone like my husband -- so smart, so versatile -- ended up in the military. Was there a tragedy in his past, perhaps? The mother of a Marine officer I know once said about him, about nine years into his career, "What a waste of a college education." (That man now has several advanced degrees, has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has been in command of one of the air groups operating in Iraq.)
When I drive back and forth between Washington and our Marine base in Jacksonville, N.C., I cross between the worlds of opinion makers and the military. Washington is career strategizing over great food, listening to my friends' nanny crises, admiring real art on people's walls, and going to meetings about how to fix the Democratic Party. Jacksonville is fixing spaghetti dinners on paper plates, going to volunteer meetings in rooms full of linoleum and metal folding furniture, relying on my neighbors to watch the kids when I'm desperate.
And there are other differences. One day I was talking to my neighbor Jane where our front lawns meet. Jane, also a Marine wife, had seen a commentary I wrote in USA Today that mentioned the fact that I had worked in the Clinton White House. "I don't mean this in a mean way," Jane said, smiling. "But I've never actually met someone who considers themselves a Democrat. How did you decide that?"
In 2005, when I was in Washington doing research, people asked how I was -- and I struggled to answer. My kids were missing their dad, deployed in Iraq. My son hadn't been sleeping through the night, which meant I was up as often as five times a night. The older one sometimes tested me for discipline. I would say these things, and people would nod sympathetically.
What was harder to say was that I found it a privilege to hold my family together, so my husband could go to war because our country and our president -- even one I didn't vote for -- asked him to. The country had asked something of us, and we answered. It felt like an honor.
I know how foreign this "speech" sounds to people with professional, upper-middle-class lives. Our book is an attempt to bring readers to a place where a statement like that makes sense.
No experience. The military-civilian gap takes many forms. The Project on the Gap between the Military and American Society of the Triangle Institute of Security Studies found that our society's most powerful leaders who had no military experience parted company in opinion surveys from other American groups in significant ways. People in leadership positions in society and without military experience, in fact, had the lowest opinion of the military of any group surveyed. While a majority of all other groups said they had a "great deal" of confidence in the military, only about onethird of those in the elite classes said the same.
The area that best exposes the deep discomfort that putatively supportive segments of America show toward the military is the reality of military recruiting. After all, if you "support the troops" and are grateful for the protection they offer, then their act of service is of inestimable value. And if you don't want the draft to be used to maintain our military's numbers, then one would think every courtesy would be extended to recruiters. But when it comes to military service, the upper classes don't even pretend they want the playing field level.
A growing number of Americans will not allow their children's high schools to give their names and addresses to recruiters. Some wealthy communities have even tried to launch initiatives to make their towns "recruiting- free" zones, where the military is banned. Cambridge, Mass., San Francisco, Calif., and other well-off enclaves have followed suit. The drafters of a local ballot measure called "College Not Combat" asks San Francisco officials and university administrators to exclude military recruiters from both colleges and high schools in the city.
The divide between those who serve and those who don't now goes far beyond any one battle in America's culture wars. The current antipathy to the military has its roots in the politics of the 1960s and early 1970s. And it seems to us another factor has been added: class. The spirit of student deferments and exemptions of the Vietnam era has been carried forward into the all-volunteer era.
The faculty members of many top universities seem to believe that their students are entitled not to be bothered with something like military service. We are reminded of one woman's comment: "Military service isn't for our kind of people. ... You should aim to work at the cabinet level ... if you want to serve your country, work to develop real leadership, to make a real difference."
Discipline and maturity. We contend that military service might, in fact, confer the real world experience, confidence, and moral authority that no university can offer to its students. Some students who spend a few years between high school and college in the military might actually arrive in college with the discipline and maturity to make better use of the experience.
In short, an anti-military college culture that may once have had political roots in the Vietnam era has now deteriorated into plain elitism and a set of fossilized, unchallenged anti-military assumptions. In 2005, Harvard Law School prosecuted a suit to allow it to ban the military from recruiting its graduates on campus, while still keeping the federal funding that the Solomon Amendment requires the school to forgo in such circumstances.
Stripped bare of the gays-in-the-military political pretense, Harvard Law School's attempt to prevent military recruiters from even asking the school's students to consider service was startlingly elitist. The law school, which is part of an institution that has a $25 billion endowment, which disproportionately draws the sons and daughters of the self-perpetuating elite, which pays its financial managers millions of dollars annually, was suing our government to stop its students from even being asked to think about joining the sons and daughters of middle- class and working-class Americans who are defending all of us.
The sheer hubris implicit in such a shameless act is staggering.
Books have been written about the tension between members of the mainstream media and the military. What the media do not report on is perhaps even more telling than what they do write. The newspapers read by the elite classes -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times -- seem infrequently to cover heroism among those who serve. Yet heroism strikes us as one of the most admirable and impressive qualities that military service inspires in those who volunteer. And without understanding heroism, the public can't begin to understand why so many military men and women are inspired to re-enlist.
For the opinion makers and most of our political leadership on the left or right, service is no longer thought of as the common duty of all citizens. Louis Caldera, secretary of the Army in the Clinton administration, wonders why calls for national service usually focus on projects such as building housing for poor people and tutoring inner city children, but not serving in the military.
The military is not a political creature of the right or left. It is made up of real human beings; good, bad, and all points in between, just like the rest of the country. And the military has always been all too human, as the many atrocities our side committed even in the "good war" -- World War II -- prove. But all that does not answer these questions: Do we need a military? If we do, who should serve? If our men and women in uniform are not seen as all of our sons and daughters, then whose are they? Have we lost a sense of community, and perhaps of citizenship as well?
Kathy Roth-Douquet is a writer, lawyer, and political activist who often comments on the military in society. Frank Schaeffer, a former filmmaker, co-authored Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps with his Marine son, John.
""Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind."" by Dr. Seuss.
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