Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Military Appeal

In a discussion group this past Sunday, we had some conversation about what it was that made joining the military appealing. Just in the nick of time, a reply comes from William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He has taught cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, officers at the Naval Postgraduate School, and currently teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He writes an occasional post for the liberal blog TomDispatch.com. Why do Americans trust the military and why do so many young people join? Apart from the simple fact that most Americans are patriotic and the fact that there is much higher trust in the military than in the politicians we elect to office, he says:

Despite often compelling evidence to the contrary, Americans like to think of their societal institutions as being open, fair-minded, and democratic. If you look without prejudice at our all-volunteer military, you quickly realize that it truly is one of the least elitist, most diverse institutions of power in American society. Most progressive voices fail to recognize this. Yet it's my belief most Americans do and it's a big reason why they say they trust it.

Our military is demonstrably diverse -- racially, by class, and even more politically than most critics imagine. As a retired military officer who now finds himself a liberal arts professor in academia, I'm struck by the relative conformity of the latter, at least when contrasted to the diversity I found in my former life. Racial minorities from the lower classes are well represented in our military. (Some critics have claimed that they are over-represented, at least in frontline infantry units.) I've seen more black or brown faces in positions of authority within our military than in academia. (In my last job in the Air Force, my boss was a black female colonel.) Indeed, until very recently in American society, our military was one of the few places where African Americans and Hispanics routinely bossed around whites. (Louis Gossett Jr.'s drill instructor in the 1982 movie An Officer and A Gentleman was not exceptional; many times I've witnessed real versions of him in action.)

Politically, our military tends, of course, to be conservative, though not necessarily monochromatically Republican. Again, the world of academia provides a stark contrast, especially in liberal arts departments in top-tier colleges and universities, which do tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic and left of center. To cite only one example, of 42 professors in the English, history, sociology, and political science departments at Brown University who registered to vote, all registered as Democrats.

Ordinary Americans trust the military, in part, because the "have-nots" have direct access to it -- far more access than most will ever have to elite universities, elite law firms, mainstream media outlets, Washington lobbying outfits, or other institutions of influence and power. Indeed, our military remains deeply rooted in the broad middle-and working-class elements of society...
Astore says that the one notable exception to this egalitarian spirit is based on gender (one might also add sexual orientation). But this is another piece of the puzzle that liberals often don't get:

This leads me to the second blind spot in the academic/progressive critique of our military -- the failure to recognize the enduring attractiveness of military service to young men seeking to construct their own identities. To many of these potential recruits, American culture today appears feminized -- or, at least demasculinized -- a mommy-state, a risk-averse society with designer drugs and syndrome-of-the-day counselors to ease our pain. In response, what we're seeing is a romantic yearning among young men for the very hardness, the brutality even, epitomized by military service and warfare.

In talking to young men in the rural, conservative area of Pennsylvania where I live, what strikes me is how many of them have seen all 10 episodes of the HBO World War II series, Band of Brothers, and how many admire the bravery, camaraderie, and sacrifice it depicts in portraying paratroopers of the 101st Airborne fighting their way across France and into Germany in 1944-45. Seasoned Marines, a colleague reports, confess that one thing working to sustain recruiting, despite the war in Iraq and regular news reports on an overstrained and exhausted military, is young men who, raised in self-esteem-touting, gender-bending environments (on TV, if nowhere else), sign up to experience "the other side."

It's easy to dismiss such yearnings as Neanderthal. The irony is that that very dismissal creates an inviting taboo for a whole segment of young American males to challenge. For academia and progressives, war is today what sex was to society in the Victorian age, involving as it does emotions nice people don't feel and acts nice people don't opt to commit. Yes, many volunteers join the military with educational or career possibilities in mind, but among young men who enlist, there is also a certain element, conscious or unconscious, of taboo-breaking -- and of self-affirmation.

For women, gender identity is often shaped by biological rites of passage: menstruation, pregnancy, menopause. Male identity is arguably less secure and defined more by the gaze of other men -- you're a man when other men, men you respect, say you are. Men have gender too -- and many seek to construct and assert their maleness within the military, a cultural setting they perceive as patriotic, meritocratic, and sanctioned by the trust and respect of friends, family, and community.

The challenge for progressives is to recognize this and then to work to create viable alternatives to military service in which masculinity and patriotism can be demonstrated in non-lethal settings...
He suggests, for instance, that there is a need for a stronger civilian conservation corps/Peace Corp kind of program that offers a rigorous and patriotic alternative to the military.

I think this is a very good post. Many of us in the progressive camp are quick to dismiss - as mindless or uncritical - military service, but we miss what is behind it: the urge to serve and sacrifice for a larger cause. This, in fact, is a good character trait that often burns strong in young people who are full of idealism. For young men in particular, the military offers a path to serve and to learn how to become a man. And I can attest to the fact that even in the home of an ardent critic of the military, Band of Brothers was a requested, and granted, Christmas present for a teenage son. We watched many of them together and I get the appeal.

So instead of looking down on those who choose to serve in the military, we need to honor the desire to serve and do a better jobe offering alternatives.

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