Since moving to Boston for graduate school, I often get asked two questions by people I meet: “Where are you from?”—and then after my answer—”You’re from Kentucky?” I’m so used to this question that the reply is almost automatic: “People in my family joined the U.S. army and were stationed in Fort Knox, and the rest of the family congregated around there.”
Why people don’t suspect Kentucky to have Asians is for another editorial on perception and diversity, but the point is that I come from a family with deep military roots. So to hear John Kerry’s “joke” about getting an education to avoid getting “stuck in Iraq” is one of the most disrespectful statements I’ve heard in a while. My cousins who have and are serving in the military—one having had a tour of duty in Iraq—are far from uneducated. The joke was tasteless, callous, and insensitive to both the soldiers who serve to better themselves and their country and their families, especially for someone like Kerry who has seen combat first-hand.
But underneath all the spin, sound-bites and controversy over Kerry once again putting his foot in his mouth is an uncomfortable and unsaid reality to his statement. Many of the college-age people he was speaking to at Pasadena have never served in the army. And many never will. More than likely their parents didn’t serve in any armed forces either. There isn’t the mandatory service as in Singapore or Israel, and no one seriously is considering re-instating the draft.
I thought back about it, and while I grew up around a strong military presence, I was never encouraged to enlist. My parents, like most people, pressed me to study hard to get into college with possible scholarships and then get a successful career. The implied thought among my peers as we were busily applying for college was that to get in, you could avoid having to enlist in the army and serve your country in the professional civilian manner.
The flak and outrage from Kerry’s statement dug into the surface of this reality; while the military remains a revered institution of the United States, it is being increasingly alien to most Americans and their children. The U.S. volunteer army and National Guard is manned by people from small towns, rural America, and the poorer urban areas. The makeup of the army has definitely changed since the end of WWII, when everyone volunteered.
Now, most parents in the middle and upper class would rather see their children on the path of college and careers than fight in Iraq. Those same pundits and Republican congressmen calling for Kerry’s head, how many of them have their own children fighting, and possibly dying, in Iraq and Afghanistan right now?
The army is becoming more isolated from young adults’ lives. Case in point: the University of Chicago.
Not to reinforce the Ivory Tower image, but most American students as far as I can estimate haven’t served in the military. There is no ROTC on campus. There have been Marine recruiters, but they were greeted by crazed swastika-branding protesters. The walls of Rockefeller Chapel have plaques reading the names of U of C members who served and were lost in combat during both World Wars; can the same number of people be found in Chicago having served in Iraq? I am not accusing the people of the University, but it is disconcerting that while we attend Mearsheimer and Pape strategy classes, read Clauswitz’s On War, and debate until the morning hours about Iraq, soldiers our age are fighting and dying in Iraq. It is a trauma that many of us will never understand or be able to comprehend, that most of our parents are willing to pay for us to avoid.
If we want to support our troops, then do so. They’re not mindless drones fighting in the Iraq quagmire because they’re stupid. They’re doing it because of their sense of obligation to America and its freedoms, for their families, and for themselves and the education and opportunities the military can provide. They’re not foolish. The same, however, cannot be said of Rumsfeld, Cheney, and the rest of our leaders.