Citizen Soldier?

Up out of the Bunker Archives – 2000.

“Every citizen [should] be a soldier. This was the case with the Greeks and the Romans, and must be that of every free state.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1813

I just finished a nightly routine of listening to my wife with one ear and Tom Brokaw with the other. A stereophonic listening technique I’ve mastered over the years. There’s nothing new or exciting to report – from either direction. Following the necessary yes hon’s and ok dears I sneaked away to scan the on line newspapers. The Washington Post, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today… rounded out with a quick look in on MSNBC and CNN Interactive. Being out here in the hills of somewhat depressed, but wild, wonderful West Virginia I feel the need to stay in touch. Having all that media at my fingertips makes me feel sort of executive-like.

Tonight I read two interesting commentaries. One, a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune responded to a budget surplus editorial that appeared in their Jan 27, 00 issue. The writer pointed out that the editorial suggested four options for the $1.92 trillion surplus. He suggested a fifth option – spend it on the military. He supported his point with examples of an aircraft carrier afloat with a crew of 3700 when it should have 5000. The Army’s 18 divisions replaced by 10. He mentioned that our numbers have decreased by nearly one million with 700,000 gone from the active force and another 250,000 from our reserves. I didn’t try to verify the figures because if they’re not right they are certainly close to what I know to be true. The writer also pointed out that “… many of our nation’s servicemen and women are required to draw food stamps in order to survive. It’s the reason so many are leaving the military and the reason we are unable to recruit good people into the military.” I don’t know who the writer is other than a citizen writing a letter to the editor, but the facts in his paragraph caused me to think about the state of our Army and who exactly is filling the ranks in those 10 divisions.

The other interesting commentary appeared in the Feb 5, 00 issue of the Washington Post. It is titled “Reaching out to Dropouts” and is not attributed to an author. It talks about the plan to bring high school dropouts into the service. I’m not opposed to this because there are many reasons young people in our country leave school that have nothing to do with being bums or criminals. The problem is that too many people who are charged with determining what equals a quality recruit are far removed from any of those experiences or reasons.

In 1971 the Army allowed a dropout I’m quite fond of to come into the Army – me. And it probably saved my life. Looking back on those days, when we still had the draft, the Army was trying to keep the fighting positions in Vietnam full. While many were being exempted from the draft, others were running north to Canada. Those with the right connections got rare jobs in National Guard or Army Reserve units. The draft managed to snare some college-educated or well-to-do souls who couldn’t or didn’t attempt to avoid their duty. But, it was mostly middle to lower income and minority America pounding the ground in the jungles of Vietnam.

One theme that was repetitious in the Post article caused me to remember those times: “… an important additional benefit will be the economic leg up it can give low-income and minority youth.” or “Army Secretary Louis Caldera said, “many of them [the dropouts] minorityand low-income youth who need a second chance…” or “… if the Army can offer thousands of low-income youth a ticket back into the economic mainstream…”

Excuse me while I drag out my soapbox so I can tell you what I really think of those words. They sound awfully damned elitist to me. Let’s help lower income and minority Americans have a better life – in the foxholes. The son of the Senator or the CEO then can go off to Oxford and practice not inhaling. If America is concerned about her low-income and minority youth I suggest the politicians look at solving the problems that caused them to be in that predicament in the first place.

Many of these youths will make fine soldiers because they are grateful for opportunity and the rise from dropout to respected professional is quite a leap in self-esteem. But, most of all they understand something that likely escaped too many others in our country – sacrifice and daily survival in a world that’s actually not kinder and gentler to their lot.

There is another point to all of this that really sticks in my craw. The message to America and reinforced by such comments and programs is that military service is not for everyone. Do you think Mr. Jefferson meant to say that every poor, minority citizen must be a soldier? I fear that in the comforting and safe confines of our super power, wealthiest nation on earth we’ve lost the true meaning of Mr. Jefferson’s message that every citizen must be a soldier. Like it or not, own up to it or not, we have created our very own neat little caste system in this country where poor kids give it up in the military for rich kids. Sorry, but I couldn’t think of a kinder gentler phrase to use to express that. Gone are the times when the rich kids are flying fighters, driving PT boats or charging up San Juan Hill. Simply put, much of this country takes for granted all that we have and has lost its sense of service and commitment. One of Mr. Jefferson’s successors in leadership characterized that commitment like this:

“I am writing…In hope that my telling this one story will help you understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military.”
– William Jefferson Clinton

As my Daddy used to say rest his soul, when things get out of whack like this there is usually a comeuppance not too far down the line. What concerns me is we appear to be lining up the ones who will pay the price of that comeuppance.

© 2000 J. D. Pendry