As we enter into yet another conflict in the Mideast it occurs to me that for the average teenager our nation has been engaged in battle with one foreign country or another for as long as they can remember. The current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the longest in United States history. It’s beginning to look like we have landed in a state of perpetual war, extremely profitable for some but surely an unsupportable position.
As Dwight D Eisenhower, our 34th president, ushered the country from the trauma of World War II into the prosperity of the 1950s (Eisenhower held office from 1953 to 1961), he worried over the grave implications of an enormous permanent arms industry.
“We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.” Eisenhower warned in his farewell speech to the nation and counseled that we must remain alert to the potential for misplaced power.
No matter what you think about how we got here; the why, should or could, surely we can agree that these wars are draining our nation’s coffers and exhausting our military’s manpower. The sacrifices made to these wars, borne by a very few, are made only more severe by the fact that they are nearly invisible to the general populace. In January Bob Woodward referred to this disassociation when he appeared on an Oprah Winfrey show dedicated to “The Bravest Families in America.”
“There is an epidemic of disconnection in America,” Woodward, who has written five books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said, “and it’s crucial to the future of our country to change that.”
“Today’s wars are not something the typical American thinks about every day,” explained Tom Brokaw on the same show. “Less than 1 percent of the American population is bearing 100 percent of the burden of battle.” Brokaw added, “However you feel about the war and the appropriateness of it, you must honor these people and their families.”
It’s heartbreaking to see soldiers being cycled through third and even fourth deployments, or being redeployed after traumatic injuries. Who can fail to be outraged at reports of homeless women, veterans of Iraq & Afghanistan, living on the streets with their children, or of soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, accused of malingering and denied medical care? Surely they deserve better.
With an all-volunteer force, the pressure on recruiters to feed the beast must be enormous. In their effort to ensure a fertile field of potential recruits the Pentagon has developed a database of 30 million 16-25 year-old Americans, including name, address, email addresses, cell phone numbers, ethnicity, social security numbers and areas of study. Called JAMRS, an acronym for Joint Advertising Market Research & Studies, the data is constantly updated and distributed to the military for recruitment purposes. Parents can choose for their children to be opted out of this list but most aren’t even aware of its existence.
And then there’s “No Child Left Behind”. Before it passed in 2002, a little known clause was inserted to put secondary schools on notice that if they wished to continue receiving federal funds they must open their campuses to military recruiters, allowing access not only to students, but to their school records as well. These are recruiters with quotas. Alert parents can opt their kids out of this as well.
The army has spent millions to develop the online video game, America’s Army. The free-to-play game is primarily a recruitment tool and records every move a player makes, tracking overall kill, kill per hour, a player’s virtual career path and other statistics.
Critics claim the army’s use of the game is in violation of international law as it targets children as young as 13. Other criticisms focus on the sanitized version of war the game offers. Instead of depicting the violent reality of combat, bullet wounds resemble a puff of red smoke and players can take up to 4 hits before being killed.
Military service has traditionally offered opportuniy, adventure and education. We’ve all heard how it takes boys and turns them into men. I don’t doubt that’s true for many. But going to war can also be the unique and enduring crises in a person’s life. The unimaginable carnage of war can take a mother’s sweet son and make change them in terrible ways, as evidenced by the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the recent revelation of the self described “kill team” and their 4,000-plus collection of photos and videos.
Most soldiers believe they are serving a patriotic ideal and will say they are fighting for our freedom. I don’t see our freedom threatened by despots or fanatics in the Mideast as much as by religious zealots here at home and polarized politics that use wedge issues to inflame and manipulate the populace. Our president will say we fight to protect “national interests”. I suspect those interests are actually corporate interests that have little to do with my family’s safety or prosperity.
When Ike issued his warning 60 years ago I doubt he could have envisioned the generation we now see coming of age, comfortable with the idea of war as an acceptable norm. As citizens it is our obligation to inform ourselves in order to participate in the democratic process. Children need to understand that war is not a game, and that the sacrifices of a nation at war should be collectively shared.