How Little the U.S. Knows of War

How Little the U.S. Knows of War

By Richard Cohen - January 4, 2011

I present you with a paradox. The U.S. Army that fought the Vietnam War was reviled, not spit upon (that's a myth) but not much admired, either. In contrast, the Army of Iraq and Afghanistan is embraced and praised. Yet one was an army of the people, draftees and such, and the other is an army of volunteers, strangers to most of us. What's happening here? The answer, I fear, is a cliche: Familiarity breeds contempt.

That "I fear" in the preceding paragraph is not an artsy pause but a genuine emotion. The Vietnam War Army happened to have been my Army. I was on active duty as a reservist, not for very long but long enough for the Army to have lost all its mystery. I found the Army to be no better and no worse than other large institutions. Some of its leaders were fools, and some soldiers were thieves, and everyone wasted money like there was no tomorrow. This is the truth and everyone once knew it.

No more. I sometimes think I am the only person around who has been in the military. This is because most people I know are college-educated professionals, many of them writers. But if I throw in politicians and even the White House staff, nothing much changes. Lots of people know the expression "lock 'n load" but very few know how to do it.

The military of today is removed from society in general. It is a majority white and, according to a Heritage Foundation study, disproportionately Southern. New England is underrepresented, and so are big cities, but the poor are no longer cannon fodder - if they ever were - and neither are blacks. We all fight and die just about in proportion to our numbers in the population.

The all-volunteer military has enabled America to fight two wars while many of its citizens do not know of a single fatality or even of anyone who has fought overseas. This is a military conscripted by culture and class - induced, not coerced, indoctrinated in all the proper cliches about serving one's country, honored and romanticized by those of us who would not, for a moment, think of doing the same. You get the picture.

Talking about the picture, what exactly is wrong with it? A couple of things. First, this distant Army enables us to fight wars about which the general public is largely indifferent. Had there been a draft, the war in Iraq might never have been fought - or would have produced the civil protests of the Vietnam War era. The Iraq debacle was made possible by a professional military and by going into debt. George W. Bush didn't need your body or, in the short run, your money. Southerners would fight, and foreigners would buy the bonds. For understandable reasons, no great songs have come out of the war in Iraq.

The other problem is that the military has become something of a priesthood. It is virtually worshipped for its admirable qualities while its less admirable ones are hardly mentioned or known. It has such standing that it is awfully hard for mere civilians - including the commander in chief - to question it. Dwight Eisenhower could because he had stars on his shoulders, and when he warned of the military-industrial complex, people paid some attention. Harry Truman had fought in one World War and John Kennedy and Gerald Ford in another, but now the political cupboard of combat vets is bare and there are few civilian leaders who have the experience, the standing, to question the military. This is yet another reason to mourn the death of Richard Holbrooke. He learned in Vietnam that stars don't make for infallibility, sometimes just for arrogance.

Little wars tend to metastasize. They are nourished by chaos. Government employees in Nevada direct drones to kill insurgents in Afghanistan. The repercussions can be felt years later. We kill coldly, for reasons of policy - omitting, for reasons of taste, that line from Mafia movies: Nothing personal. But revenge comes back hot and furious. It's personal, and we no longer remember why.

The Great Afghanistan Reassessment has come and gone and, outside of certain circles, no one much paid attention. In this respect, the United States has become like Rome or the British Empire, able to fight nonessential wars with a professional military in places like Iraq. Ultimately, this will drain us financially and, in a sense, spiritually as well. "War is too important to be left to the generals," the wise saying goes. Too horrible, too.

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Richard Cohen

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