Saturday, November 19, 2005

No-one sees how bad this is

One of the most important themes of this blog is that America has lost its compact with its military. It has lost the relationship by which young people put their lives at risk in order to serve. Douglas MacArthur saw that this relationship was in danger from the atom bomb, and his response was to insist on using atomic weapons on the battlefield. Why, his argument goes, would soldiers risk everything for the struggle if the country was not willing to commit everything to the struggle in return?

This consideration is peculiar to America. In Europe the experience of mass casualties in World War I had already eroded the compact to the point where war is viewed as only occurring as some inevitable calamity that sweeps all up into itself, not as something in which individuals can choose to play an active part. It is solely a reactive game; where states retain armies they are perceived as having a policing role rather than a role of national survival.

After the blow to the compact delivered by the existence of atomic weapons came the blow of Vietnam. A generation was conscripted into a war that would take their lives yet was not so important that the nation would commit its full force to it. Yet surviving veterans might look to obtaining at least some measure of respect from some quarters of society. Apocryphally, they were derided ("spat at by demonstrators") on their return - an allegation for which there is no evidence - and this legend illustrates that the returning Vietnam veterans did not have the legitimacy of liberators that the GIs of, for example, Omaha Beach had. Yet they had a service record that was respected for itself, albeit not for any greater philosophical value.

After Vietnam, some effort went into reforming the compact. Wars were henceforth to be fought with the minimum of casualties - in Kosovo, apparently, with no casualties at all. The military was to be all-volunteer. Instead of relying on an old boys' network to assure as many vets as possible some kind of minor supervisory position in certain amenable enterprises, with all the scope that entails for partiality, incompleteness and hidden prejudices, military service would be seen as the provider of technical training, citizenship and similar certifiable advantages. Reserve status would supplement civilian pay. Vets would receive respect for their experience and expertise, and via that, for their integrity.

Until Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the hideous gang. The compact has been ripped open on all sides. For a soldier in a hard job the light at the end of the tunnel is extinguished. Stop-loss, and especially stop-loss for reserves means that his service is not getting him (or her, but mostly him) anywhere. Tours in Iraq mean that he is not getting the certifications he expected to have when he eventually leaves the military. And respect for his efforts is absent from the people who sent him there. He is less likely to get respect than a civilian.

You doubt that? Ask Max Cleland. Ask John Kerry. And now, ask John Murtha. Josh Marshall reports that
The House burst into yells and pandemonium. Schmidt was forced to come back to the House floor and ask that her remarks be stricken from the record.
But they still don't get it. It's not about behavior to one veteran congressman being not gentlemanly enough. It's about the troops in the field now and their expectations of their role.


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