Thursday, June 23, 2005

Last week, the US Army celebrated its 230th birthday. That’s older than the nation itself. I participated in a birthday ceremony at Times Square. This event was sponsored by the Army’s NY area recruiting command, a regular Army unit; they hosted the Vice Chief of Staff, a four star General in the Army, they invited some National Guardsmen to attend. The ceremony was brief. Soldiers were re-enlisted, and campaign ribbons for Iraq and Afghanistan were awarded to those eligible, most soldiers received at least one. A few soldiers, real heroes, got one for each theater.
Tradition is a military virtue that seems inscrutable to those who haven’t served. It is an essential binding agent in a social order that is designed to survive great stress. Even in Iraq, we held the occasional parade. Traditions serve as reminders of military values, loyalty, courage, discipline other intangibles that warriors need to succeed. Tradition helps us focus on duty and mission, reminding us of those who preceded us, and the sacrifices they made for freedom. Above all else, the American soldier values freedom, he or she has sacrificed some freedom just by enlisting, foregoing some civilian liberties, in order to ensure their continued existence.
One of the oldest traditions in the military, and one we lament rather than value, is the disdain or apathy of outsiders. This often includes our political leaders. Since the beginning of the republic, the idea of a large standing Army has been anathema. The founding fathers feared the existence of a large military. They preferred a very small professional core, to be augmented by the state militias when necessary. This continues today, with Reservists and Guardsmen augmenting active forces committed in the current war. We still prefer not to enlarge the active army, despite the strains upon the entire system.
Filling these ranks has become problematic. Recruiting is now Mission Impossible. Current estimates are that active army recruiting is about forty percent short. Despite of all the “Thank You”s and the handshakes that I get while I’m in uniform, young people don’t want to enlist. Parents are particularly reluctant to accept their children enlisting. At deeper societal level, this reflects America’s historical preference to fight wars far away and to let someone else do it. There was a post 9-11 surge in recruiting, but now deep into the challenge, young people are finding it difficult to connect their life goals with the sacrifice of military service.

While leaders reflect the views of their constituents, we also take cues from our leaders. Responsible political leaders need to speak responsibly about issues. US Congressional Representative Jim McDermott has unfortunately attacked military recruiting efforts:

"They're not going to all the schools. They're going to the schools where they figure the kids will have less chance to go to college," said U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott, a Democrat. "It's an insidious kind of draft, quite frankly."

This is unfair criticism. Recruiters, with quotas to meet will go to every school they can, talk to every prospect available. They will however, concentrate on students who have not already been accepted to into college. They’re goal is to enlist soldiers. So they focus on those most available. Military service is many things to many people. Some see it as an opportunity to serve, others to advance, many recognize it as both. I paid for college almost entirely with military money. And I’ve put it all on the line in Somalia and in Iraq.
Rep. McDermott criticizes the Army for not leveling with prospects about the realities of combat. Instead Army recruiters focus on adventure and opportunity in their sales pitches. Well, I hope so. Corporate recruiters don’t focus on the long hours new hires may have to work to get ahead, or the treacherous steps of a career path. Pitching the good parts is what recruiting is all about. It is hard to imagine that in the fourth year of a war, potential enlistees are ignorant of the possibility of combat. I’m not sure that anyone whose cognitive abilities are so challenged would pass the qualifications. I wouldn’t want that soldier on my team. America’s youth seem to understand the rigors of wartime service, hence the inability to reach recruiting quotas.

There is also contempt in the Senate for soldiers. On June 14th, the Army’s birthday, Sen. Dick Durbin stood on the Senate floor, and compared me and my comrades to Nazi’s, Soviet’s and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. Now I’ve never been to Guantanomo Bay, but I handled dozens of detainees in Iraq. It was my experience that the US soldiers handle all detainees with dignity and respect, even when they were caught red-handed trying to kill Americans. I am aware that abuses have occurred throughout the system, just as they do in American civilian prisons. And in French and German prisons for that matter. I was in Iraq when the Abu-Ghraib scandal broke. Unlike most Americans I was directly affected, having to work and interact with Iraqis in the scandal’s aftermath. Significantly most Iraqis understood that this was not torture to the degree that Saddam had perpetrated it, though they were still enraged. But no American soldier that I have met, and no reading of current US policy that I have seen has condoned torture or institutional murder for retribution, for genocide, for reasons of race, for reasons of class. These are the crimes of those regimes that Sen. Durbin has accused my comrades of emulating. Should we continue to have a national dialogue on the methods we use to combat terror? Absolutely! But we need to do so while respecting the men and women who are working the hardest to keep us safe.
An open and frank discussion about the war and the policies by which we wage it is welcome. It is in fact necessary. We succeed in war, as in all things by continual self evaluation. But this criticism needs to be constructive, and it needs to be respectful. Being a soldier is hard. And I use soldier in its broadest terms, Sailors, Airmen, Marines as well as Army soldiers are included in my definition. It is a hard job to get. Basic training is some the toughest entry level job training around. Soldiering means long hours, in dangerous places and dangerous spaces. It means never quitting. It means respecting the values of our nation. The least we can ask for is that respect to be returned by all civilian legislators, not just those who approve of this war.

John Byrnes


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice piece in the Post, In saw it, but where's the picture?


Thu Jun 23, 03:26:00 PM 2005  

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