The minister made an interesting confession. “I always liked Memorial Day,” she said, “because I liked having a day off and I love barbecues. I had respect for our casualties of war,” she went on, “but they were kind of an abstraction.”
Isn’t that true of many of us? We do have a warrior class in this country, and sadly many people know of no one who belongs to it. They know of no one who has given up his or her life for the sake of comrades; they look with curiosity at veterans they see at the airport getting about on prosthetic legs.
There is a geographical aspect to those who are part of the military culture – whether or not they have served – and those who are not. Not surprisingly, parts of the country near the large bases, the Navy ports, the training camps, are imbued with the military ethos. In many cases, serving is a family tradition, and retired military often stay close by. You will also find that a disproportionate number of recruits come from “flyover country” – those parts of Middle America, or the American South, where young adults still say “sir” and “ma’am,” where they listen to country music, where they go to church.
By contrast, relatively few military inductees hail from those parts of the country where our elites are to be found – in the cities, on the coasts, particularly in the Northeast. Chicago, where I live, has a large naval training base just thirty miles up the lakefront, but I would not say the city has a military culture at all.
By no coincidence, those parts of the country that do not carry the military ethos also tend to be liberal, and Democratic. And this is unfortunate. Because sending soldiers into harm’s way is one of the most consequential decisions a government can make, and its consequences – both for good and for ill – need to be appreciated by both major parties in order to have a thorough and grown-up debate over the decision. In the years since the Vietnam War left an indelible image of the army as misguided and misanthropic, the American Left has adopted a nearly-rigid position that the projection of force is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary, and even then limited in scope and always with an “exit strategy.”
“War Is Not The Answer” says the famous bumper sticker. But that depends on the question, doesn’t it?
Congressman Charles Rangel at one point was pressing for a resumption of the military draft. To hear him tell it, he wanted the children of the wealthy to be exposed to the same risks as the children of the poorer classes – for him, it was an exercise in social justice. But behind that view is another aspect of the liberal concept of the military, that of the soldier as victim. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds join the service as a way to escape poverty – but they wouldn’t take that route if they had other viable choices that weren’t potentially lethal. The volunteer army is thus a visible example of this country’s injustice and inequality.
Senator John Kerry, a veteran himself, had this charming bit of condescension to offer students: “You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”
And then there were the yard signs that offered the progressives’ twist on the pro-military slogan: Support the Troops/End the War. (Odd, incidentally, that those signs, which were pretty common around here during the Bush years, have pretty much disappeared even though we still have 50,000 soldiers in Iraq, and more in Afghanistan.)
But our soldiers are not victims or losers. They are proud, courageous, and highly trained. As just one indicator: the proportion of college graduates among our military is higher than the general population.
The minister gained an insight when she met a member of the congregation who had served. When the moment of instantaneous action comes, she learned, a soldier does not put his or her life at risk because of love of country so much as because of love of the soldier standing right there. “Comrades in arms” sounds like a trite saying; but in situations where life and death are determined in a moment, faith and trust – even love – in your comrades creates a bond stronger than most can imagine.
As the Gospel of John put it, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” That doesn’t sound like a victim to me.