'Those Who Have Borne the Battle': Who fights our wars?
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I recently saw a man extend his hand to a Vietnam veteran in a well-meaning gesture: "Thank you for your service." The veteran accepted with discomfit and responded, "It wasn't my choice."
A HISTORY OF AMERICA'S WARS AND THOSE WHO FOUGHT THEM"
From 1940 until 1973, every American male reaching the age of 18 faced the prospect of being drafted against his will into military service. The draft loomed enormous in young men's lives. Men went to school, chose occupations, got married and had children all in accordance with their status in the Selective Service System.
Defying free market principles of labor market efficiency, not to mention choice, the draft was 20th-century America's method of creating a large enough military to fight its wars. As James Wright explains in "Those Who Have Borne the Battle," his excellent new history of our wars and those who fought them, the American Revolution had inspired a strong distrust of large standing armies and more than a little disdain for professional soldiering.
Consequently, the U.S. Army before the Civil War was small and ill-equipped, its ranks filled with the poor and foreign-born. When war flared with Britain, Mexico or Native Americans, "citizen-soldiers" stepped in as temporary volunteers or members of state militias, only to return to the plow and shop when fighting ceased. Such voluntary participation made large wars possible and, in so doing, ensured that those who bore the battle were at least marginally representative of the nation.
The draft, for all its many inequities and injustices, similarly distributed the burdens of war across the population (while making it possible to fight even bigger wars). The result was a nation where military service was commonplace, a rite of passage for young men.
"For my culture and my time," writes Mr. Wright, "joining the military was a natural step." But, he continues, "if most of us expected to serve, very few thought of doing so for any more than the minimum of the time required." Mr. Wright himself served that minimum as a Marine in the late 1950s, an unexceptional and not-always-enjoyable experience he quickly put behind him as he moved forward in a career that eventually took him to Dartmouth College, first as a professor of history, then as college president.
Mr. Wright's identity as a veteran remained latent until 2004 when the battle for Fallujah in Iraq awoke within him memories of his own service and sparked a powerful emotional connection with the Marines fighting in the streets. He traveled to Bethesda Naval Hospital in the summer of 2005 to meet with the wounded.
He would return there and visit other military hospitals many times over the next six years to talk with and befriend more than 300 service men and women in various states of pain and disability. "I have never gotten used to seeing these young wracked bodies," he writes. "I never want to get used to it."
Those visits inspired this book, which seeks "to tell the story of those who left their civilian lives and homes to fight wars" as well as "to describe how American society historically has thought about, remembered, and cared for those who have sacrificed in America's wars."
The similarities among those who have borne the battle across the generations are many, of course, but the differences are more striking. For the first several decades of the young republic, military service was considered an obligation of citizenship that implied no reciprocal obligation from the nation. There were few medals and pensions, no federally financed memorials or cemeteries, and no talk of "heroes," except to recognize truly exceptional leadership on the battlefield. The Civil War, which introduced conscription to the United States, changed this attitude dramatically. Massed armies slaughtered each other in unprecedented number (750,000 killed, according to new estimates), engendering the sense that a grateful nation owed a debt to its war veterans.
Mr. Wright surveys the history of subsequent wars, focusing especially on the 70 years after Pearl Harbor, to assess how our nation has made good on that debt. He covers much familiar ground: the successes of the GI Bill of 1944, the silent suffering of those who fought the "forgotten war" in Korea, and the lack of official recognition, understanding, and support of Vietnam veterans.
Given the unspeakable cruelty of war, how could such a debt ever truly be repaid? In the words of World War II veteran William Manchester, cited in the book, "The fact is that some wounds never heal."
The meaning and purpose of "Those Who Have Borne the Battle" comes into focus in the final chapters on our post-9/11 world. Afghanistan and Iraq were the first extended modern wars to be fought without a draft. As a result, those who have borne the battles there -- less than 1 percent of our population -- are unrepresentative of the nation as a whole.
They constitute a complex and distinct demographic: not poor, but disproportionately rural and lower-middle class, with large numbers from the South and Midwest. Military families have become a subculture of their own, an insular world about which those on the outside know little.
Perhaps most telling is that those likely to enlist are the sons, daughters, and neighbors of veterans. Those who don't personally know any veterans generally don't enter the military.
It's easier to go through life today without knowing any veterans than it was during the draft era. Only 18 percent of adult men today are veterans, as opposed 45 percent 40 years ago. It's easier also to ignore our wars when they're being fought by someone else's sons and daughters with someone else's money (unlike World War II or Korea, these wars are entirely debt-financed).
We try to compensate for placing the burden of war on the shoulders of the few by referring to everyone in uniform as "heroes" and offering well-meaning gestures of thanks.
Mr. Wright ends his book with a better and more challenging suggestion: no military action should be authorized without income- and corporate-tax surcharges that would cover the costs of both the war and the trust fund needed to support its combat survivors. I know of no better way to support the troops.
Todd DePastino, a writer living in Mt. Lebanon, is executive director of the Veterans Breakfast Club, a non-profit that gathers veterans to tell their stories with the public. His books include "Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front." He teaches history at Waynesburg University (depastino.com).
First Published May 20, 2012 12:00 am