Thursday, October 23rd, 2008
“Am I going to have to go the Army?,”eight-year-old Jacob asked me recently as he channel-surfed past a war movie.
The question is impossible to answer with certainty. Parents who married after the War To End All Wars never anticipated that their children would be drafted to fight in the war that came after that, World War II.
And the parents of Baby Boomers probably never imagined the draft would still be in effect 20 years later and that those sons would be sent to fight in Vietnam over the course of a decade.
So the fact that my sons, and daughter for that matter, are currently not obligated to serve in the military doesn’t amount to very much. It’s simply impossible to anticipate what crises may befall the world in the time before they reach draft age. My older son will be 18 in less than four years, before the end of the next presidential term.
Giving my most truthful, but delicate answer I said: “No one has to go to the army. It’s all volunteers. You can become a soldier if you want to but they are not forcing anybody.”
Each time I read about recruitment figures plummeting because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the means the armed services are using to keep us at full strength - easing the requirements, accepting convicted felons, and the infamous stop-loss program to retain veterans - it sends a shiver down my spine.
What could be more terrifying than the idea that all the hopes and dreams we have for our children, all the values and education we invest in them could come to a sudden end in some far-flung part of the world with the firing of a bullet or the detonation of a bomb?
While there is no greater continuity issue than the continuity of our children’s lives as adults, too seldom do we look at world events, particularly wars, with that fear as part of the equation.
I wasn’t much older than Jacob when the draft was abolished, and before that never had much consciousness of what loomed ahead if the war in Vietnam continued. Not until I turned 18 and registered for Selective Service did I ever have to think of the possibility of being drafted. Even then, the years of draft eligibility passed with barely a thought of how world events could impact on my future, as it had on those barely 10 years older than me.
As a parent, I would welcome, though with natural trepidation, any choice my children might make regarding military service. There is no calling more noble than to physically defend your country.
But each Friday night as I bless my children, foremost in my mind is the wish that world peace will never deteriorate to the point that another draft is necessary.
Which begs a question: Is it moral to expect other people’s sons and daughters to die on the front lines to protect yourself and your family?
That question came to prominence earlier this year when a pro-Democrat organization, MoveOn, aired a commercial with a young mother telling Republican John McCain “you can’t have my son” to fight in the Iraq war, which McCain supports.
The ad was widely taken as an insult to all military service, although the mother in question was clearly alluding to the Iraq war in particular and her belief, shared by a majority of Americans, that a continued presence there is not worth the human toll.
But critics of the ad raised a valid point: Who will pay the cost of your freedom? If not your son, someone else’s. Why is your son’s life more valuable than those who have enlisted?
Although I naturally and instinctively cherish the lives of my children more than those of strangers, I rationally do not consider my children more valuable or somehow exempt from sacrifice, if sacrifices need to be made.
They enjoy rights in America that were paid for in blood and in service, including the service of both their grandfathers who answered the call during the Korean War and, fortunately returned to civilian life in one piece.
But too often we forget that military service is a two-way contract. Just as those who serve have an obligation to carry out their orders, even at the cost of life and limb, so too do their commanders have an obligation to use their sacrifice always as a last resort, never a first, and always in the name of security, not to serve political aims.
No strong, effective army could function with its troops empowered to pick and choose the conflicts in which they participate. But neither can an army be strong without high morale and patriotism and maximum confidence in the justice of their cause and the righteousness of their leaders.
In his satirical documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” filmmaker Michael Moore confronts several members of Congress on Capitol Hill, enlistment papers in hand, and asks if they will sign up their sons and daughters to fight in the war they authorized.
Similarly, New York Congressman Charles Rangel, a drafted Korean War combat vet and Iraq war opponent, has tried to introduce a draft bill on the assumption that his colleagues will be less eager to authorize a war their sons and daughters will have to fight.
Both are raising the question that is the flip side of the argument made by detractors of the MoveOn ad. Just as it is abhorrent to insist that the responsibility to fight and die be carried solely by Other People’s Children, it would be equally abhorrent, if not more so, to treat the decision to go to war with less gravity simply because the current army consists of Other People’s Children.
According to polls, Jewish Americans, more than almost any other group, have opposed the war in Iraq. Among those who buck that trend, I often ask, point bank, if it was a cause they supported enough to send their own sons and daughters. I get mixed answers, but they always follow a thoughtful pause. For a stark contrast, imagine that question asked 60 years ago during the rise of Hitler.
There are conflicts we cannot avoid, like the war on terrorism that was delivered to our doorstep on 9-11, and all the dirty work needed to win it. We will be tested again in the future, perhaps sooner rather than later thanks to Iran, with questions about pre-emptive, or elective use of force.
To be effective, a military decision-maker (including the commander-in-chief) must, in large part, be blind to the individuality, even the humanity of each soldier and the extent to which they are linked to families back home, looking instead at fleets and squadrons, divisions and regiments and their degree of effectiveness. Sparing troops in one battle could easily mean the loss of more later on, the onset of civilian casualties, or even the loss of a war. This is especially true when dealing with enemies to whom the sacrifice of human life is not even a means to an end but an end unto itself.
But hopefully, those who will make those future decisions for our country will spare a moment to imagine each potential combatant as an eight-year-old worrying if he or she will ever be forced to go to war, and themselves as the parents who have to reassure them, while praying for peace.
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