There’s a lengthy article entitled “Their War” in last weekend’s Washington Post magazine that I somehow failed to see on the first spin of the cycle. Worth reading end to end because of the sensitive way in which the writer seeks to understand the growing gap between a volunteer army and the people it serves. It also amplifies a point I touched on here:
The route to the parking garage takes (Yale student and ROTC Cadet Chris) Day through a stone building beneath a green copper dome. Inside, his boots slow down. Other students stream past him, the dusky, echoing space filled with the quick squeak of tennis shoes, the staccato slap of hurried flip-flops. Day always slows down in here. Columns of names of dead Yale men line the walls. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the world wars, Korea. For each of these conflicts, the columns fill whole walls.
The Vietnam columns, on the other hand, fit within a short archway. After passing through the archway, Day emerges into an open rotunda, where the walls are empty of names.
Later in the article Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a distinguished veteran of up-close warfare himself, makes an unfortunate allusion to the all-volunteer force as “guns for hire,” mercenaries about whose deployment an increasingly disengaged policy elite acknowledges few humanitarian constraints. There’s a risk in that certainly, albeit one mitigated by the properly informed debate which ought to inform the constitutional process of committing troops to battle.
The collateral risk, given that process, is non-trivial as well: That an increasingly disconnected populace with an MTV-conditioned attention span grows bored with “our soldiers” fighting “their war” before their mission can be accomplished.
Ennui may well attempt to masquerade as outrage in time, but the troops will remain unimpressed. What an all-volunteer force will come to understand is that they were sent forth to fight and some of them to die for reasons insufficiently important to see through to a successful conclusion.
There are many unhealthy trends which boil just beneath the surface of our polity; the brand of hyper-partisanship that imputes ill will to difference in opinion being one, the politics of personal destruction that substitutes for enlightened governance of our civic commons being another. We must certainly guard against the temptations of elites to treat human lives as a commodity, and it will be a tragedy if broad segments of the populace lose faith in those who sacrifice themselves and their families in the name of the common good. But of all the toxins working through our system only this one may prove fatal: That those who sacrifice in our name might themselves lose faith with us.