Rich avoid military service, the responses

Posted: Jan 14, 2003 12:00 AM
In a recent column, I observed that only one of the 535 members of Congress has a child or grandchild in the armed services. I suggested that certain parts of our society, particularly the upper-middle class elite, which supplies so much of our political class, lack an appreciation for the qualities of the military - discipline, sacrifice and egalitarianism. The major implication is that America's well-to-do feel that armed service is somehow not worth their time. I asked readers whether the growing divide between the civilian and military life and the rich troubled them and poor. Apparently, the column circulated in, through and around military bases across the country and overseas. Responses came - no poured - in. The overwhelming majority of them were deeply disturbed by the lack of military service amongst America's rich. A few respondents, however, felt otherwise. One reader, obviously not the sort to ruin a perfectly good stereotype, said his experience as a software engineer working on military contracts led him to believe that military personnel lacked the creative instincts to "think outside the box." He said that the military was a great equalizer for the poor, but that the military experience was not the best setting to cultivate one's intellectual or creative instincts. The well-to-do, he concluded, would be better served in the private sector, where they could make an equally important contribution to the defense and economic well-being of this country. His response was typical of those respondents that dismissed military service, insofar as it seems to depend on two crucial assumptions: 1) military people are not very creative. That any character traits - real or perceived - are the result of the military experience, as opposed to the quality of people presently attracted to the military; 2) That the military experience, with its rigidly defined hierarchy and emphasis on following orders forever stifles creativity. "The military cannot be creative," the reader responded. "If they did, it would be a scary thing." Presumably, the reader was referring to "the grunts" that carry out the hard physical work of combat. As to whether such an experience irreparably damages ones creative spirit, that certainly didn't seem to be the case with most of the great novelists of this century, many of whom served in either the two world wars or the Vietnam conflict. When you realize that these arguments against serving in the military are based on social and cultural assumptions - mostly of the elitist variety - you realize that the arguments against military service begin to sound a lot like the arguments that used to be hurled against women. For centuries, people would look at the lack of artistic and political output by women and assert that as proof of their inherent inferiority. Never mind that women were relegated to the private sphere, denied extensive schooling and mentors to cultivate their talents and social interactions to develop their vocabulary and their subjective sense of self. They were even denied the reasonable expectation of success. Similarly, we seem to have reached a point where intelligent, wealthy and fairly well-to-do citizens are not expected to go into the military service, and so they do not. They then look at the dearth of such people - upper-middle-class, pseudo intellectuals - in the military as proof that the military experience does not cultivate these talents. Several readers found this divide between the civilian and military life and the rich and poor to be so pervasive as to threaten the well-being of the republic. As one reader wrote, "From a historical aspect, civilizations that prospered have always been the ones where everybody believes they have an obligation to contribute to the foundation of their society, with the elite believing they were most obligated. What happens though is that as a society prospers, people lose their sense of obligation and begin to believe they are owed an obligation. Unfortunately, all democracies that have failed (and all of them have failed, most lasting no longer than 200 years), have failed because its citizens quit feeding the foundation and turn to feeding off the foundation by giving themselves benefits, like unaffordable tax breaks or unaffordable social benefits. The rot has almost always started with the elite and has always worked itself down to the lower classes until that society became thoroughly corrupt." Several other readers drew allusions to the fall of Rome: "My concern is that the all-volunteer military, along with ever greater polarization of society (and the political class) and the Balkanization of the nation, will eventually carry this nation to the same conclusion as the other great republic in history - Rome. An American Caesar may arise someday who will take command just as surely as Julius Caesar did 2,000 years ago. It might not happen during our lifetime, but it will likely happen eventually, given the path we have chosen." I do not believe that there is a realistic possibility that the American military can, or ever would, even contemplate the assumption of explicit political power. The ties to the people, and the deep endowment of American character, absolutely preclude it. Or, as historian Richard H. Kohn observed: "The American Constitution, with its division of powers and authority, its checks and balances, has succeeded not only in defending the nation against all enemies foreign and domestic, but in upholding the liberty it was meant to preserve. No military force in the United States has ever risen up to challenge constitutional procedures or the Constitution itself, nor has any political leader, so far as is known, ever attempted to use military force against the Constitution." As for the suggestion that we re-institute a draft, I would note that one of the great benefits of our democracy is that the citizens have the right to do nothing. This right is essential to the functioning of our democracy, as is the need for our society to keep at least some distance between military and politics, lest the military soon become an instrument of tyranny. Another reader offered a more pragmatic reason for maintaining at least some divide between the military and political classes: "All these forms of service - military, education and, perhaps, even research - have to be paid for, and that requires a robust economy, which in turn requires that somebody in the private sector is minding the store by actually making money doing something private that is profitable. Maybe the real question is simply whether our collective efforts make a healthy, balanced concord of free men and women." Well put. Though I still fear that if the divide gets much greater, it will be because our society has achieved the sort of cultural decadence that usually precedes the fall. Thank you all for your responses.