They say the war is over. But water still
Comes bloody from the taps …
The recent report that 22 veterans were committing suicide each day was particularly heartbreaking because the VA had already estimated there were 400,000 soldiers with untreated PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), along with the millions already under treatment. Another report claimed that a third of the women in our military have been raped by our own soldiers; and that number in turn was said to be underestimated.
The question is, What’s happening to America?
It’s no accident that this breakdown has festered while the gulf between rich and poor has been swelling into an enormous chasm. Our once vibrant society now has less mobility than most of Western Europe, and much of Asia (even Pakistan!).
In 1955, as soon as I graduated from college I was drafted. Not a happy event: I’d been offered a well-paying job, I was dating Jeanne (we married a few years later); and I was in no way eager to become a soldier.
At the same time, it didn’t seem unreasonable to me. Many of my friends were drafted, too — a few went to muddy Korea, where the war had just ended, but some lucky ones like myself were sent to Germany, where we still kept a large American presence. When I reported for my physical examination, my vision wasn’t tested without my glasses, and it never occurred to me to point out that without them I was legally blind — which a doctor later told me would have disqualified me for service. (If I were brandishing my M-1 in the rain, God help anyone who was near me.)
The draft rules changed during the years; in 1955 it was a six-year commitment: two years active service, two years active reserve, and two years inactive reserve. But when I reported for duty in the bleak dunes of Fort Dix, New Jersey, my platoon and company were a mix from all levels of society: poor young blacks and whites, middle class workers, and college boys like me who were a little older because we had enjoyed a deferment to finish our education (mine, it turned out, was just starting). The draft was a lottery system that worked because it seemed pretty fair. I say “pretty fair,” because even back then we universally believed really rich kids had ways of ducking service (and the absence of Congressmen’s children among us seemed to support this belief).
Another reason we served without resentment was that although we didn’t quite understand the Korean War, we generally looked on America as a beacon in a dark world. It wasn’t until the atrocities and lies of the Vietnam and Iraq wars came to light that this faith began to unravel.
Today’s “volunteer” Army isn’t really voluntary, and war isn’t a shared burden, as it was with our generation. It includes large numbers of poorly educated young men and women pushed into the military by joblessness and poverty — not by any wish to “do their part” — and fighting in countries that they can see for themselves hate them. As a result, they become both vulnerable and deadly, often combining conflicted feelings of helplessness and anger.
Along with building a strong educational system (beginning with pre-kindergarten, as President Obama has suggested), one possible way to begin healing this wound would be to pass a universal draft law — this time including women and the very rich — for a minimum of two years of government service, not necessarily military. And we should do this soon. American society’s physical and moral health requires, at the very least, that we make both our recruitment and our wars fair.
The war may be over. I know a man
Who keeps a pleasant souvenir, he keeps
A soldier’s dead blue eyeballs that he found
Somewhere — hard as chalk, and blue as slate.
He clicks them in his pocket while he talks …
—Both quotes from “Redeployment” in The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (U. of Chicago Press, 1977).