The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Draft and the Professional Military

Back on June 26, 1963, when I entered the Naval Academy, I had in my wallet what was called a draft card. In those days every able-bodied young man became eligible for the military draft at age 18, and possession of the draft card was proof that one had registered with the local Selective Service office. More than that, though, obtaining a draft card was a kind of "coming of age" ritual through which a boy made the transition to manhood. I can recall my older high school classmates opening their wallets and proudly displaying the coveted card to those of us who were still 17. Because of my September birthday, I was among the youngest in my senior class, and didn't turn 18 until I had already begun my freshman year at Georgetown University. By then, of course, there was little reason to celebrate openly since most of my new college friends had preceded me. For them, it would have been a ho-hum moment.

Conscription remained the law of the land for another decade and the draft was eventually stopped by President Nixon in January of 1973. By that time I had spent four years at the Naval Academy and had been a commissioned officer in the U. S. Navy for almost six years. Although it might be hard for me and my contemporaries to believe, as a nation we have now had a professional, all-volunteer military for forty years.

All of this came to mind when I recently heard a senior officer make what was quite likely an off-hand comment by saying, "I do what my Commander-in-Chief tells me." Although I suspect it was taken out of context, it still bothered me, reminiscent of the "I was only following orders" excuse used in the past to rationalize some rather horrendous behavior by other, more authoritarian governments. It also led me to ask myself some questions I don't feel particularly competent to answer. But I believe they are questions our nation must ask itself and at least try to answer. For example:

Can an increasingly centralized federal government, one that has usurped many of the powers previously reserved to the states and local communities, more easily command the unquestioned loyalty of the military? Will we ever get to the point where our military leadership is more beholden to the Commander-in-Chief than to the Constitution it is sworn to uphold?

And then I asked myself another question: Does the presence of a professional, all-volunteer military eventually create a gap in both values and understanding between the citizenry and the armed forces? After 40 years, does this gap already exist? Can it lead to the kind of isolation that might cause the professional soldier to feel a degree of disdain toward civilians who do not share the values of the warrior? Would the reinstatement of the draft alter this? I recall a joke told to me by a retired Marine friend that's germane to these questions.

The young lieutenant turned to the gunnery sergeant and said, "Gunny, there's a base open house on Saturday and our platoon has been assigned to assist with crowd control. I'm putting you in charge of keeping visitors out of unauthorized areas."

"That could be a problem, sir. Are these visitors all civilians?"

"Yes, of course. Why's that a problem?"

"Well, sir, how do I get the word to them? From what I understand, civilians don't have squad leaders."
Perhaps I'm wrong, but I doubt that this joke would have been around when we still had the draft.

Christopher Dawson
I am a student (a very poor student) of history, and this week I've been re-reading a book written by a most remarkable historian, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970). The book, The Age of the Gods, was written between the two great wars of the twentieth century and first published in 1928. In it Dawson examines the spiritual and social development of our stone-age ancestors along with that of the early civilizations in Egypt and the Near East. This morning, as I read Dawson's description of the decline of Egypt's New Kingdom, I came across the following:
"Thus the fundamental weakness of the New Kingdom in Egypt was revealed in its ultimate consequences. The combination of the ancient theocratic culture with the warrior state of the Bronze Age proved a failure because no organic union of the two was possible. The military class remained external to the civilization which it defended, as a parasitic growth with no roots in the life of the nation" [The Age of the Gods, p. 300].
Will we ever get that far? I doubt it. The New Kingdom of Egypt and the American Republic are very different, culturally and politically. But since it's inevitable that our society will eventually go the way of all its predecessors, one can only wonder about the cause.

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