But first, the context: the column focusses on an NBC story about soldiers in Iraq who fell insufficiently supported by the American public. Having detailed their compliants, Arkin points out:
These soldiers should be grateful that the American public, which by all polls overwhelmingly disapproves of the Iraq war and the President's handling of it, do still offer their support to them, and their respect.Yes, in the pages of the Washington Post: in order to save democracy, we might have to destroy it.
Through every Abu Ghraib and Haditha, through every rape and murder, the American public has indulged those in uniform, accepting that the incidents were the product of bad apples or even of some administration or command order.
Sure, it is the junior enlisted men who go to jail. But even at anti-war protests, the focus is firmly on the White House and the policy. We don't see very many "baby killer" epithets being thrown around these days, no one in uniform is being spit upon.
So, we pay the soldiers a decent wage, take care of their families, provide them with housing and medical care and vast social support systems and ship obscene amenities into the war zone for them, we support them in every possible way, and their attitude is that we should in addition roll over and play dead, defer to the military and the generals and let them fight their war, and give up our rights and responsibilities to speak up because they are above society?
I can imagine some post-9/11 moment, when the American people say enough already with the wars against terrorism and those in the national security establishment feel these same frustrations. In my little parable, those in leadership positions shake their heads that the people don't get it, that they don't understand that the threat from terrorism, while difficult to defeat, demands commitment and sacrifice and is very real because it is so shadowy, that the very survival of the United States is at stake. Those Hoovers and Nixons will use these kids in uniform as their soldiers. If it weren't about the United States, I'd say the story would end with a military coup where those in the know, and those with fire in their bellies, would save the nation from the people.
But it is the United States, and the recent NBC report is just an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary - oops sorry, volunteer - force that thinks it is doing the dirty work.
No, he doesn't quite say that, because he doesn't quite mean that. If this parable "weren't about the United States" is his caveat; and it's a sound one. I think 11/7 and the recent polls show Americans value their democracy far more than they value either military power or fear-mongering. The fact is, of course, our "volunteer" army (properly "mercenaries," as Arkin says, but that's such an ugly term) is not the armed forces of World War II, citizen soldiers mobilized to defend the nation against a gang of attackers. Or even the citizen soldiers of the Cold War, mobilized to protect us against the non-existent threat of falling dominoes in Asia. These aren't even the disillusioned draftees of Vietnam.
These are people paid to go to war. It isn't "volunteer." It's a job. It's a dirty job; but it's still a job. Still, as Arkin says, the question is: is this the job they need to be doing?
The notion of dirty work is that, like laundry, it is something that has to be done but no one else wants to do it. But Iraq is not dirty work: it is not some necessary endeavor; the people just don't believe that anymore.The discussion we need to be having is: why do we have a standing army at all? After WWII, the answer was: because it would have stoopped Hitler earlier (never mind that almost no one in America wanted to do anything about the situation in Europe before Pearl Harbor was attacked). During the Cold War, the answer was: because of the Commies! Domino theory! Containment!
I'll accept that the soldiers, in order to soldier on, have to believe that they are manning the parapet, and that's where their frustrations come in. I'll accept as well that they are young and naïve and are frustrated with their own lack of progress and the never changing situation in Iraq. Cut off from society and constantly told that everyone supports them, no wonder the debate back home confuses them.
America needs to ponder what it is we really owe those in uniform. I don't believe America needs a draft though I imagine we'd be having a different discussion if we had one.
Now? Now we see the danger of a standing army. During the Cold War, the argument about the inevitability of nuclear exchange was that no weapon had ever been developed that hadn't been used. True for the atomic bomb; not true. it turned out, for the hydrogen bomb. But the argument applies to armies, too, and was why the US never had a large standing army: it's too much of a temptation to use it like an imperial force, to send it into foreign countries on a flimsy pretext and once it's there, dare the legislature to pull it out.
Which is precisely where we are today. Democrats in Congress, even those outside it, like John Edwards, all remember '68. They remember McCarthy running on an anti-war platform, and not even getting the nomination. They remember Nixon's "secret plan" to end the war, up against McGovern's "anti-war" campaign (and McGovern, unlike the current crop, was a WWII veteran, someone from "The 'Good' War"). They've learned the lesson: Americans don't vote for candidates who won't use our military when it's needed. The question is: when is it needed?
And we really haven't addressed that question squarely since the end of World War II. The very survival of the United States is at stake, but not from terrorists or any outside enemy. The United States, after all, has never been more than an idea. That's why we always look back, now to the "Founding Fathers," to "original intent" or the Constitutional Convention or the words of Ben Franklin and George Washington. We want to remain true to the Idea.
But it's time to talk about how far from that idea we have strayed, and how we get back closer to it. Arkin is right: if we had a draft, this would be a very different conversation. But it needs to be a conversation about how we, as a country, interact with other countries. Instead, it's still a discussion of what we, the citizens, who keep forgetting we are the sovereigns (that was the "Idea" of the Founding Fathers, remember?), owe to the "nation"? JFK was right: we should be asking what we can do for our country. But he meant what we can do for each other. He didn't mean what we can to do increase the profits of Exxon and Halliburton.