Monday, August 27, 2007

Military Connections?

Jody asked us about our military connections. She had in mind the frequent claim that mainstream Americans have little contact with the soldiers now serving in Iraq. My connections to the military are a little thin on the ground in real life, but thick in my now defunct intellectual career.

So, real life first:

  • My paternal grandfather served in the Navy in WWII. He served in the Aleutians, as part of the military contingent on merchant marine ships, so he actually saw very little combat.
  • My father chose to avoid the draft for Vietnam by joining the army reserve. He had reserve duty that took him away from home for weekends during the earliest years of my childhood.
  • When I was small, my family lived for two years on Saipan. Even in the mid-70's, WWII was such an overwhelming part of the terrain and culture of the island that that war felt just as present to me as the Vietnam War that was still winding up. I have been to the site on Tinian where the Enola Gay was launched; I was 4 at the time. That was the same age I saw the footage filmed by Marines of Japanese civilians jumping from Suicide Cliff, fleeing from the US invasion. In their defense, my parents didn't know what was coming. But you know? Suicide Cliff was a place we went by pretty often, so it didn't quite go over my head.
  • M*A*S*H was one of the few shows we could see on television on Saipan. I know this isn't particularly real life to a grownup, but to me at 3 and 4 years old, it was a substantial part of my sense of how the world worked.
  • I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. I know, I know, I know--I was eighteen and a feminist and in the peace movement.
  • I was in the peace movement. It was a little late in the day, but I spent a couple of summers and a good part of a school year canvassing for SANE/Freeze and did a lot of protesting during the first Gulf War. This is an antithetical relationship to the military, but a relationship nonetheless.
  • In my last year of college, I went to a going-away party for the brother of a friend who was joining the military, and all of his ex-army friends were telling stories. I felt like I was a guest in a different culture, and I was.
  • When we were in Madison, the president of our little synagogue, who was a psychiatric nurse in the reserves, was activated for service, an event that shifted the community's sense of investment in the war.

Intellectual career next:

My dissertation was on the topic of how women in the baby boom generation write about the trauma of the Pacific theater of the Second World War. I've spent a lot of time with soldiers' and sailors' memoirs, and with the novels that came out of that experience initially, with various histories and secondary literature, and of course all of that all over again with the way it comes back in the next generation, so I've spent some time on the similar literature that comes out of Vietnam, as well. I've also read so many Hiroshima stories that when Jonathan Safran Foer went there in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close--a book we sort of strangely read out loud to each other in the car--I interrupted A. and inserted what was going to come next from off the top of my head and got it pretty much right.

That's a good 8 or 10 years of my life spent reading, thinking, and mostly not writing about the military, but the military of my grandfather's and father's generation, and all this even though I would say that (like Jody) I feel hostile to the entire idea of standing professional armed forces, whether volunteer or conscript. I tend to think of my interest in terms of my early exposure to the war while living on Saipan. I tend to think of my hostility in terms of a family history of qualified pacifism and having grown up on Capitol Hill, at what everyone assumed would be ground zero when everyone assumed the attack would be nuclear.

Thinking about this, it strikes me that what I have connected to are the wars of the previous two generations that touched everyone, because of the draft or because--in the case of the Cold War--of the grip they had on the culture while they were being engaged. This seems like an argument that the draft does make more people pay attention--a point that Jody, along with Senator Rangel and others, have made. But I guess I'm throwing in my two cents there, too: if we're going to go to war, let's share the burden.

Your thoughts, guys?


kathy a. said...

it is true that i don't have personal connections with soldiers now serving in iraq. [and also my deepest wish that no one i know and love, or who you know and love, has to go serve in this misbegotten war. my son, for example, is very draft-worthy.]

but i have had military connections; pretty strong ones, in my mind.

my dad served in the army during the korean war, stationed in japan. he was in the army reserves throughout my childhood. his army buddies were his closest friends in life. one of them presided at his memorial service. [another remarried my mother, after my parents divorced many years back.]

i know some of our ancestors also served. one was a captain in the union army during the civil war; his engraved cane was my inheritance from my dad. another served as a union infantryman, then later privately brought provisions to the troops; a cousin found and transcribed his amazing letters.

vietnam happened when i was growing up; it was on the news pretty much every night for 10 years. an older boy at our church was drafted and badly wounded, in mind and body both; my dad was one of his supporters when those inside wounds would not heal. later, in my work mostly, i met so many vets who never quite recovered from the horrors they saw.

[also, i was in the generation that grew up with the wonders of nuclear weaponry, and school bomb drills that consisted of hiding under our desks. my kids had the same emergency drills, but they were called "earthquake drills," a much more reasonable use of desks as protective cover.]

my husband enlisted as an officer in the navy during the cold war -- training, serving 4 years on submarines in the atlantic, and 2 years in japan. we were apart half the time, between long-distance moves, my career, and the 3 month tours that submariners take twice a year.

our separations were for weeks or months, not a year or more -- but when the sub was out, we had no direct communication. and we all knew that if something went wrong on the sub, it could be catastrophic. so when i think of military people in iraq and their families, i remember how hard it is to be separated, and the backdrop of danger. add actual combat and attacks, and that's enough for anyone's heart to pound.

i think you are right that many americans do not feel a direct connection to this war -- partly because nobody they know is being killed or put in danger.

but also, this is not a war like WWII, where everyone pitched in because our country had been attacked by a particular enemy, our allies were being bombed and innocent people sent to execution camps, and we were going to go stop those guys.

this is our president's vanity war. we are not very good about telling the top dog he is crazy and he has to stop this right now.

my reservation about the draft is the same as my reservation about continuing the war: whose children are going to get killed before we get smart and pull out?

sorry for ranting all over your blog.

Magpie said...

I don't really have any personal connections - though my father and uncles were all in the military, they were all between WWII and Vietnam so no one saw anything hard.

In some ways, I understand the thought that if there's an army, there should be a draft, so that we're all in it together. Though, I think - probably naively - that we shouldn't need a standing military.

Scott Kohlhaas said...

Having conscription to make people pay closer attention is madness! Who could blame people for turning away from the government's lies about the war? Destroying individual rights is certainly not the answer to apathy and cynicism.

Would you be willing to spread the word about It's a site dedicated to shattering the myths surrounding the selective slavery system and building mass civil disobedience to stop the draft before it starts!

Our banner on a website, printing and posting the anti-draft flyer or just telling friends would help.


Scott Kohlhaas

PS. When it comes to conscription, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

niobe said...

Interesting question. I suppose I should go over to Jody's blog and answer it. I thought I didn't have any military connections whatsoever, but I see now that that's not entirely correct.

The family tradition is that my great grandfather served in the Russo-Japanese War. Who knows if it's true, but we do have a picture of him in uniform. My grandfather served as a medical officer in Europe during World War II. My stepfather served as a medical officer during the Vietnam conflict, but was never stationed overseas. My uncle was a Vietnam era draft dodger who fled to Canada and never came back. One of my closest friends was in the JAG corps reserves (though I might have the terminology wrong) at the time of the First Gulf War, but, although he was a reasonably competent Arabic speaker, was never called up. Three of my current coworkers are in the JAG corps reserves. The one whose office is four doors down the hall from me is supposed to start his tour in Iraq in a couple of months.

Co said...

I don't think I qualify as a member of "mainstream America" these days. What does that term mean anyway?

Maybe I used to fit that term better than I do now. My dad was a sergeant in the Air Force (during Vietnam, but never went). Both my GFs and most of my great uncles were WWII veterans. My cousin was in the Army. I don't know anyone currently serving in Iraq, but I do know a family friend who is currently in the Army.

E. said...

My students and their family members have been getting sent to Iraq for years. It affects their lives--and their performance in the classroom--a great deal. The airport at which I have spent a lot of time recently has been brimming with soldiers on their way to deployment for as long as the war has been going on. I don't think mainstream Americans have no relationship to the war--unless we're defining that term as those who have enough money that they know no one who needs to go into the military. From what I've seen, the plenty of working- and middle-class Americans have a very personal stake in the war. Many of them also support it: no one wants to feel like their loved ones died in vain. It angers me that my students don't count as "mainstream." They would most certainly define themselves that way, even though they do not live in a suburban neighborhood located on one of the coasts.

kathy a. said...

oh, e. -- what a powerful comment, on so many levels.

i am profoundly sorry that your community -- your students and their families -- have been affected so deeply, and have nothing but respect for the fact that when they were called, they have gone. whatever my misgivings about this war, they do not extend to those who enlisted to serve.

i'm not sure that "mainstream" was the right word to use; perhaps what jody meant originally was that many communities are not so personally affected as they would be with a draft. the worries are unevenly spread.

i think of mainstream as ordinary people from diverse backgrounds, having in common that they work to support their families, are neither independently wealthy nor desperately impoverished; that they are reasonably educated and law-abiding, and reasonably involved in their commnities. not superstars; not on a most wanted list.

no family does want to say their loved one is at risk for no reason, or has been lost in vain. i don't believe that is true on a personal level, about the work that military individuals do -- they are all charged with protecting one another and performing certain tasks, and there is nothing but honor in doing one's best.

my father and husband enlisted voluntarily. if my son or daughter enlisted, i would have to support and honor their service. and i do support and respect the work of troops in service now.

my problem is with the policy decisions to send personnel into this particular war. we are stuck now: there is no good out, and more people will be lost before it is over, any way it is over. how many more? for what larger objective? those are tormenting questions.

oy. e., you have made me look the demon in the face. my opposition to the draft boils down to, i don't want this war to become personal for me, don't want to put my own in danger. i should be fighting the polcies as if a draft was already there, because i don't want that for anyone else, either. not for this ongoing travesty.

S. said...

E., I think that in the situation Jody was talking about--and her post refers to a Doonesbury cartoon from Sunday--mainstream means "non-military families." In other words, a sub-culture of military families, or military communities, exists for whom armed service is central to their identity and deeply affects how their lives are organized (as kathy a. describes). Containing service within this subculture means that the society more generally is then able to ignore the sacrifices and risks that this group undertakes. If this is true--and I think it is--this makes it easier for the larger culture to sit back and allow vanity wars (kathy a.--yes.) like to happen. Because we don't feel so desperate to protect our children from wartime service.

This means that it's not *our* kids, it's your students, who may be mainstream Americans in many ways, but the fact that soldiers are concentrated in your classes suggests that there is a subculture of military service at work where you teach.

I'm winding up back at the same paradox I was looking at when I registered for the draft at 18, writing in my CO status. Unlike Scott, I think there should be universal conscription (including women), because conscription shares the burden of service...and forces moral choices, and creates widespread consequences in the electorate for politicians pursuing private vendettas with other people's children.

E. said...

A bit late getting back to this thread. I hear what you all are saying about military families, conscription, and the rest. A point of clarification: my students are not, for the most part, from military families, nor do they seem to be part of what I think of as military subculture. In other words, they seem to have little in common with other career military families that I know. They are simply from an economic class where spending a few years in active service seems like a pretty good job; in terms of pay, benefits, and the like, it probably beats their other options.

kathy a. said...

there is an interesting article in the washington post today: