Pop Culture

Why aren’t the rich and the famous in uniform?

Yogi Berra did it. So did Dr. Seuss, Humphrey Bogart, and John F. Kennedy. They all served in the armed forces. Today it’s much less common for the rich or famous to serve, but that wasn't always the case. During W.W. II, Jimmy Stewart and Clark Bable both volunteered. In the 50's, Elvis Presley was drafted and spent two years in the army. And after September 11, Pat Tillman left the NFL to become an army ranger. In their new book, “AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service — and How It Hurts Our Country,” Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer, would like to see more class integration of the military.

Both have a personal stake in their arguments: Roth-Douquet is a military wife and Schaffer’s son is a marine. While both would like younger Americans to sign up for national civilian service, they offer different solutions to military service. Schaffer proposes a lottery draft and Roth-Douquet suggests the military “convince” more people to sign up. The authors were invited on “Today” to discuss their book on Memorial Day. Read an excerpt:

Introduction


Frank and Kathy
We never served in the military. And we certainly claim no personal credit for the fact our respective son and husband volunteered — if it had been up to us initially they probably wouldn’t have. We were raised in a culture, a privileged culture, that misunderstands and underestimates the meaning of military service. In our own lives, as we came to understand and appreciate the military, it was striking to us how enormous our previous ignorance was, and how entirely comfortable we were with that ignorance. And we noticed that we were not alone. People like us — educated, urban, in careers where you make good money, and interested in the good life, good food, travel — entire extended communities of people like us know nothing about the military.We are trying to make the case that this ignorance is not okay, that serving in the military should not be just about personal preference. This is particularly important now when even the leaders of the major institutions in the United States seem not to believe this, when they ask so much of the military, and yet have not asked anyone to serve. It is as if our leaders have become shy about talking about the common duties of citizenship, shy of even using a word like duty.

Frank
I guess that this book is Kathy’s and my attempt to figure out what happened to us.  It is also a declaration of love for a husband and a son and a statement of respect for the choice they made.  The Marines borrowed my boy and returned him a man, and in the process made me a little bit better person. My son grew up during five years of service and two combat tours.  So did I.I was extremely fortunate to meet Kathy. Here was a “sister” who was also relatively new to the military family. Here was a splendidly educated and articulate career woman, dedicated mother and military wife, who shared my belief that the growing gap between many civilians and the military is a bad thing. The idea of teaming up to write something together seemed very natural when I learned that Kathy was writing pieces for USA Today on the same subject I had been addressing in some of my books and Washington Post articles: life within the contemporary military family.   Maybe this book is also — for me, at least — a penance, an “I’m sorry” to the good people who have been protecting me all along. I guess my attitude has been something like that of the hobbits in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as described in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. When the hobbits occasionally met the so-called rangers, they were suspicious of them more often than not. The hobbits had no idea what lay beyond their cozy world or any inkling of the price the rangers were paying as they kept vigil. The protectors held a dark universe of terror at bay while the blissfully ignorant and protected slept.

Kathy
I met Frank Schaeffer when he came to a book signing in my town. Like many people in the military, I’m a fan of Frank’s work, especially Keeping Faith (written with his Marine son John), and Faith Of Our Sons: A Father’s Wartime Diary.  He was the only person I knew describing what I experienced, the “disconnect” between my old life and the military world.  Frank and I ended up talking for several hours, in between him signing books and me chasing my children around in the bookstore. We compared notes about our “drafting” into the military, about our own previous misconceptions, and those of our friends. We also talked about how much we’ve benefited, felt honored even, by our experiences. Later in email exchanges we started to talk about the need for a book to help address and maybe even bridge the gap between the military family and the rest of our country.         

During my kid’s spring break in 2005, I was in Washington, D.C., to do research for this book.  People asked me how I was, and I struggled to convey the answer. The kids were missing their dad since he deployed to the war in Iraq. My son hadn’t been sleeping through the night, which means I had gotten up as much as five times a night for nearly two months, and at age forty that gets a bit old.  It’s hard to keep the routine going, hard to put a sit-down dinner in front of a three- and seven-year-old, hard to read a story and sing a song at the end of a long day by yourself.  The older one sometimes tests for discipline. Sometimes I get angrier than I’d like or turn on a movie for the kids a little too often.  ometimes it’s hard to fall asleep at night. 

I could say all those things, and people would nod sympathetically.

What was harder to say was that I found it was a privilege to hold my family together so my husband could go to war, because our country and our president — even one I didn’t vote for — asked him to do so. Through the mechanisms of democracy, the country had asked something of us, and we answered, and it felt like an honor.

It’s hard to say the latter part of this “speech” because I know how foreign it sounds to people with professional, upper-middle-class lives. I know how much of these lives are oriented around preventing the kind of uncertainty and risk that my children and me experience, let alone what my husband experiences. This book is Frank’s and my attempt to bring people to a place where statements like the one above make sense. 

Frank and KathyIn 2001, we were attacked. In 2005, for the first time in a decade, the Army fell far short of their recruiting goals, though by the end of that year the numbers were better than in the spring.[1] While the Marine Corps missed some targets for the initial sign-up of recruits, they continued to overperform on the measure that is more critical to them: the number of recruits who actually ship to boot camp.  The Army was seriously underperforming both on original sign-ups and shipping-out rates, even after adjusting down their recruiting goals.

Yet President Bush did not use his bully pulpit to urge anyone, much less students at our elite schools, to volunteer. Surely he, as commander-in-chief, might properly have made such a call.   

After 9/11 the New York Times endorsed the invasion of Afghanistan as a “just war.” They said that our troops were going into battle carrying the hopes and prayers of the Times’ editors with them. But they did not ask anyone to share in the responsibility to fight this new war against Islamic jihadists, called the war on terror. Perhaps they did not want the awesome responsibility of suggesting a person actually go to war. Perhaps, although they believed the war was theoretically just, the idea of someone actually fighting it just made them too uncomfortable.

The President did not make a call. And to our knowledge no major newspaper did. No one in a leadership position made such a call. Maybe the President, the editors of the Times, and other national leaders refrained from a call to arms because they didn’t want their own military-aged children to serve.   

These days some members of our upper classes are so hostile to the idea of service that they have all but banned military recruiters from our best private high schools and college campuses, lest anyone even suggest to their young people that military service is an honorable interruption of the rush into elite colleges and socially acceptable jobs and lots of money. The privileged learn that war is bad, and believe that those who find themselves in the military – while we “support them” — are likely to be underprivileged, certainly somewhat suspect, possibly over-avid gun collectors or victims of unscrupulous recruiters. So why would someone with good options possibly choose service?

From our own experiences we have learned that service can be about what America aspires to be. It can be the melting pot, a meritocracy and a level playing field. It can be about what it means to be free and American and responsible for your neighbor. For young people it can be about building self-confidence and being given amazing responsibilities at an age when many young people think it is a big deal to operate a fax machine at an unpaid internship or that life is “unfair” because they don’t like their college roommate. Last but not least military service is also a realistic, often necessary and democratic response to aggression and chaos.

Undoubtedly there will be readers who object — what about the torturing of prisoners, the raping of Air Force Academy women, the post-traumatic stress suffered by returning veterans?  It’s true — the military is not exempt from crime or tragedy or bad behavior, even institutional bad behavior. The military, like every other institution, is located on planet earth and filled with frail human beings.

There are about one and a half million men and women in the armed forces, more if you count everyone in the reserves, let alone their dependents. Out of a city of several million souls one would expect some very bad apples. We need to police our institutions, military or civil, scrutinize power structures, and prosecute bad actors.  We need the media to tell the truth, even when it embarrasses us. But we need to remember that the failures of military people, and their occasional crimes, aren’t an indictment of the military as a whole any more than a congressional bribery scandal should lead people to no longer want to vote — or run for office.

Others will counter that service can be tedious, unpleasant, even fatal. We are not suggesting that everyone will have a wonderful, Outward Bound-type “growth experience” in the military.  As a famous Marine Corps recruiting poster of the 1970s said, “We never promised you a rose garden.” Any number of people, no doubt, can complain at length about the bad time they had in the armed services. Novels like Catch-22 draw their inspiration from reality, after all.  But the point is exactly as the poster put it — this isn’t about choosing a vacation destination. It’s about service. And having lived both sides of the civil-military divide, we are struck by how little understood service is, especially by the upper classes.

It was not always this way. Our museums are filled with portraits of the scions of leading families who led fateful charges, sometimes were harmed, sometimes returned to fame and fortune, all of whom did their part. A lot has changed since our political, business and academic leaders encouraged, even expected, their children to serve as part of the growing up process and as something that many American males just did, with the full support of their loved ones.  

Today, the number of congressmen and congresswomen who are also veterans is about only one-third what it was a generation ago, in 1969, and the percentage is falling fast.

Donald N. Zillman, “Where Have All the Soldiers Gone II: Military Veterans in Congress and the State of Civil-Military Relations,” Maine Law Review (2006) (publication forthcoming).  Seventy percent of Congress were veterans in 1969.  Twenty-five percent were veterans in the Congress of 2004.[2] Only slightly more than one percent of members of Congress have a child serving.

This is not a Democrat-versus-Republican issue. It is a class issue — small town, religious and middle-class Democrats or Republicans are more likely to have someone in the military in their extended social group than wealthy partisans of either party living in big cities.

Why don’t the elites serve? They probably never even consider it.  If asked, some in the opinion-making field might come up with a political reason.  However, before Clinton or Bush were elected, before 9/11, and before the war in Afghanistan, the second Iraq war, and the war on terror, and before gays in the military became an issue in reaction to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the elites weren’t volunteering, let alone encouraging their children to serve. The “reasons” may change but one thing remains constant: the expectation that military service is for the “other” and never for the most privileged.

Whatever the putative reasons behind the non-service of privileged Americans, our concern is that the gap between the opinion-makers — the cultural, professional, and business elites – and the military is harming us as a country now and may harm us to a far greater extent in the future. The stakes are high: the U.S. military is an arm of American official activity abroad. 

More and more Americans see the military as a kind of magic black box — put any desired outcome in, and results come out. Why didn’t we simply “secure Iraq” after we invaded? Why wasn’t Osama bin Laden captured in Afghanistan “when we had the chance”?  How come we didn’t “plan better for the war in Iraq”? Why didn’t we “stop the genocide in Rwanda”? Why didn’t we invade the Sudan to “save the people in Darfur”? Did the military “get to New Orleans fast enough” after Hurricane Katrina? 

The country needs to debate our military policy wisely. We are not sure America is doing that today. We are certain of the fact that fewer and fewer civilian leaders and opinion-makers have actual military experience, let alone a personal stake in our country’s military decisions, a “stake” that stares back at them from their beloved child’s boot camp graduation photograph.

We believe we are shortchanging ourselves as a country, and we are shortchanging a generation of smart, motivated Americans who have been prejudiced against service by parents and teachers. Their parents may think they are protecting their children. Their teachers may think they are enlightening them. But perhaps what these young people are being protected from is maturity, selflessness, and the kind of ownership of their country that can give it a better future.

[1]  While the Marine Corps missed some targets for the initial sign-up of recruits, they continued to overperform on the measure that is more critical to them: the number of recruits who actually ship to boot camp.  The Army was seriously underperforming both on original sign-ups and shipping-out rates, even after adjusting down their recruiting goals.

[2]  Donald N. Zillman, “Where Have All the Soldiers Gone II: Military Veterans in Congress and the State of Civil-Military Relations,” Maine Law Review (2006) (publication forthcoming).  Seventy percent of Congress were veterans in 1969.  Twenty-five percent were veterans in the Congress of 2004.

Excerpted from “AWOL” by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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