America's 'Volunteer' Military in a Time of Perpetual War
In 2006, John Kerry told a group of college 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."
As a veteran, I felt mixed emotions when I heard John Kerry make this comment. At first, I was angry. I felt that his comments were just another example of how out of touch and elitist American politicians were. It seemed that he was trying to suggest that American military members were uneducated and lacked intelligence. My initial thought was "How could he!" I didn't think I was stupid. I had just recently graduated with high honors from a halfway-decent state university in California; I went to a fairly good public high school in Ohio; and some of the most well-read and intellectually interesting people I have ever known were the soldiers I served with during my 8 years as a Military Policeman in the U.S. Army. But when I calmed down and thought about the experiences that led me to sign up in 1993, I realized that what he was trying to say was right. He may have fumbled his point, but the essence of what he said contains a truth that most American's find difficult to accept -- that the majority of people who go off to fight America's wars come mainly from blue-collar, working class families. Families that may not have had the same avenues of opportunity as the group of college kids Kerry was talking to in 2006.
When I left to attend basic in 1993, the blue-collar Ohio steel town I came from had already undergone a major transformation. The steel mills that had provided my parents' generation with a lifetime of work had either downsized or closed their doors during the 80s and 90s. Sadly, my generation grew up watching the once booming Steel Valley turn into the rustbelt before our eyes. As the factories rusted away, our opportunities faded with them. The steel industry that brought my family to the area and provided most of my friend's parents with jobs could no longer be counted on to be our blue-collar safety net. The rapid deindustrialization of the American economy left me and my fellow Howland High School graduates with few opportunities. As a result, most of us moved away in pursuit of greener pastures. Some went to college; some looked for work in other regions; some took unskilled positions in the service industry; and many, like me, found opportunity in the military.
Fortunately for me, I served the bulk of my time in the military during the relatively "peaceful" times of the 1990s. Other than an uneventful tour in the Former Yugoslavia in 1996 and a few hairy moments during a deployment to Kosovo in the summer of 2000, I was mostly spared the trauma of combat. But the soldiers who entered the military as I was making my exit enlisted during a time where they would be subjected to frequent deployments and constant exposure to the stresses of combat. In the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, America's mission changed. In the years that I served, the Cold War tactic of deterrence was still the dominant strategy. But soldiers who entered the Army in the years following the attack on the Twin Towers were part of a new strategy that emphasized preemptive strikes against perceived threats. This tactic led to the War against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and countless other military operations around the globe.
American foreign policy has grown increasingly aggressive in the years following September 11th, 2001. This has had profound impact on the morale of American service members. As suicides and divorce rates among military members have increased during the last decade, so has the contentious nature of the debate over who bears the burden of America's new foreign policy strategy. Kerry's comments in 2006, and the backlash that followed, represents the nature of this debate. It surrounds the problems associated with a country who repeatedly sends "volunteers" like the boys profiled in David Finkel's The Good Soldiers (2009) off to fight its preemptive wars. The reality is that while politicians and pundits quibble over ideology, the American working class continues to disproportionally bear the burden of war fighting. Regardless, most soldiers really don't care about rhetoric or the statistics -- they don't have that luxury.
Military strategists will tell you that an all-volunteer force is the most desirable type of standing army. The argument is that a volunteer military is supposedly more professional and reliable than a fully conscripted force. In the early 1970s, the United States successfully transformed itself from a conscripted to an all-volunteer force. The new American military prides itself in professionalism and the quality of the citizens that serve. In order to maintain this strong level of professionalism in the volunteer force, the new American military has relied on modern recruitment techniques that entice working-class folks with the promise of job training, money for college, and a chance to show their patriotism. But what happens when that force is stretched too thin and worn out? An American citizen that joins the armed forces today can expect to participate in more than one combat-related deployment. This will try the resolve of even the most patriotic soldier.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Good Soldiers (2009), David Finkel captured this reality with his haunting tale of the 2-16 infantry battalion from Ft. Riley, Kansas as they dealt with the harsh realities of the Iraq war. Like most soldiers, the reasons and rhetoric behind why they are risking their lives in the trash-filled streets of Iraq do not concern them. What they are consumed with is the routine details of their "mission" and the dangers they face on a daily basis. ("It's all good," the mantra of the 2-16's LTC Kauzlarich, becomes a weary statement of hope as the realities of war shake the battalion.) They are a group of highly-trained men on focused on survival. Their social backgrounds make little difference to them. These young men are the epitome of the patriotic working-class citizens that the United States relies on to fight its wars.
Fortunately for America's military, the transformation to an all-volunteer force coincided with the decline of the American industrial complex. In the post-Vietnam era, the armed forces have had a large pool of high quality working class citizens willing to volunteer to fill its ranks. As industrial job opportunities dwindled, military service has provided an appealing alternative for many Americans. But what is going to happen to our armed forces as the demands of the post-September 11th shift in strategy make "volunteering" less appealing? Does the United States return to a strategy of deterrence? Do we create a compulsory system of service that spreads the burden of war evenly among our citizens? Or do we continue to ride on the broad backs of working class "volunteers" like the Good Soldiers? One thing is certain: we cannot close our eyes and just keep telling ourselves that "it's all good."
Rodney Pearson is a former paratrooper and a survivor of graduate school. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org