What makes people choose military service? Why would a person risk their lives for another, for someone they don’t even know, or even for people that they hate? Is Nationalism dead? Does it need to die? With so many people disillusioned with the state of these United States, what reason is there to pledge allegiance to anything besides family and friends? According to some sources, less than one quarter of the U.S. congress has worn a uniform. Fewer than one in ten Americans has served their country by joining the military. With these kinds of statistics, what does military service have to do with being a good American, or patriotism?
Should it make a difference if someone has been in the military when it comes to determining who decides if a country should go to war? What does military service say about one’s commitment to one’s country, or one’s amount of patriotism? And, if someone castigates the military and those who serve in it, do they have the right to do so no matter their self-perceived status under the pale of American citizenship? These questions and more have formed the core of my experiences and I can only speak to them out of the books of my own, personal history.
My perspective is experientially biased. For nineteen years of my life I was the son and dependent of an Air Force NCO who, through his own initiative and hard work, became a respected and successful Officer. I gave up my Air Force dependent’s ID card for an Army active duty ID card, serving from January 1987 to July 1991, honorably discharged. My experience growing up as a brat made military service no less an option than college although I did do a year and a half of college before entering the Army.
Did I enter specifically to serve my country? No, not directly. The GI Bill and the Army College Fund were my primary incentives, made even more irresistible by the Europe 9 option, which guaranteed me a tour on the Continent. Most of my AF dependent friends in HS had spent years in Germany, Great Britain or Italy and, even though I’d lived on the Isle of Crete, Greece as a young boy, I wanted to go to Germany and experience the Continent for myself. Aside from those admittedly sensate considerations, I was a victim of what some call the economic draft, in which economically disadvantaged Americans with few options choose service in the military to increase their technical and/or educational skillsets in order to gain an advantage in the workforce post-service.
In Basic Training and during all phases of national military service, Patriotism, Duty and Sacrifice are ingrained into soldiers in the physical, mental and spiritual dimensions. None of this was new to me, as I’d undergone the same conditioning all during childhood. Nation, fraternity and the possibility of making the Ultimate Sacrifice form the foundation upon which generations of Americans have stood, finding common cause in the shared love of community and family and the necessity of defending these societal institutions against all threats. For individual soldiers, these ideas resonate at a conscious level and, alongside the desire to serve with and protect one’s fellow soldiers, result in a martial stance on many issues, both social and political, that might be considered extreme by those outside of the military establishment, i.e. kill them all and let G-d sort them out.
During times of peace, the lives of American soldiers’ center around training – in the field and on post/base/installation – and rear echelon maintenance activities that leave plenty of time for fun and carousing, which is perfect for young people with few or no responsibilities to anyone other than themselves. My European Tour was just that, for almost three years. But when STOP-LOSS was initiated right before Desert Storm – the first Persian Gulf War – it became incumbent upon me to determine whether or not these subconscious and ideological pinions that had been inculcated within me and my fellow soldiers were indeed worth the possibility of giving up my life, and whether or not the cause for which we had been called into conflict was in line with a direct threat to the nation, its communities and families.
After much thought and counter to my plans previous to the onset of hostilities, I determined that this conflict, wherever it might lead, would comprise the extent of my willingness to sacrifice my life for “my” country. And so when my service ended – and as soon as STOP-LOSS released me into the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) on inactive status – I was done and, as a passive sign of my new-found aversion to nationalism, did not cut my hair again for 12 years as I embarked upon an educational Awakening that continues to this day, 20 years later. My knowledge of the military industrial complex at that time was minimal, but the observation that Desert Storm seemed mostly about natural resources and the economic concerns of a wealthy minority did not pass over my then-shorn head or those of my friends even though we were only soldiers. Subsequently, the Clinton Presidency saw us out of the Gulf and into the Balkans at the onset of wars in the former Yugoslavia, which was when the center of gravity of American troop deployment moved from West to East. Then, the end of the 90s and beginning of the new century, a new president from my home state, Texas, and, after 911, a return to the Gulf by way of Iraq and Afghanistan leading up to the Present and Now, an incursion, potentially, into North Africa by way of Libya.
The Cold War-based military that I was a part of is no more; all the Vietnam vets waiting for retirement are long gone as my peers, those whom I entered the military with, have reached their 20 years of service and more, achieving whatever heights they aspired to during the intervening decades. A soldiers life recedes in memory if not intensity, leaving her or him experientially diversified yet foundationally similar to those who currently wear the uniforms, carry the rifles, and shout the cadences. This fraternal experience, which bonds men and women in terms of service is as real as any other bond, and sometimes more visceral and powerful than many.
To make the decision to go to war requires a sober mind that, at the very least, understands a soldier’s mentality. That shares his concern about family and friends, protection and safety. That displays a certain level of connection to community and nation, as an extension of the personal circle of friends and family. While military service is no indicator of patriotism as an expression of personal nationalistic fervor, the experience of military service imbues citizens with a real-world understanding of the sacrifices that are made daily by those charged with defending the country and its interests. In times of warfare, accepting a military draft as one’s personal commitment to the common welfare is considered to be a matter of duty and responsibility. While there are many reasons why people act to circumvent or avoid such prescriptions, be they political religious, ideological or familial. Within the context of the national corpus, all citizens of a nation could be considered to be more or less responsible to and for that nation, at least according to their level of participation in its institutions leading to the accumulation and enjoyment of its national treasure, wealth and overall indices of political, cultural and social well-being. When a nation’s military is made up of “volunteers” from the lowest economic and social echelons of society, a “free” nation made up of “equals” supposedly represented governmentally by their ‘equals” has lost its way and become representative of the imperatives of a more Oligarchical type of polity.
I can’t say whether or not National Military Service should be a mainstay in America, as it is in some other countries, but such service does instill a sense of duty within a country’s citizenship that elevates the needs of the whole over the needs of the individual. The cohesion of nations depends upon a shared metanarrational thread that binds disparate peoples together in time and space, and absent that National Myth, multiple cultural narratives compete for primacy, leading to warring factions based upon racial, social or cultural differences. Military service helps to form the parameters of that story. Considering the fact that all National Myths are part-fiction part-truth, their general acceptance as fact by those who believe in them does more to bind a society together than does geographical proximity or economic necessity.
In my own experience, military bases are the closest this country has come to truly egalitarian societies based upon a merit-based equality that discounts race and ethnicity and relies upon individual achievement in order to determine one’s ability to rise in society. And while this fraternal society has proven imperfect in many facets – as a reflection of the racial and economic trends of the greater society – it is a model that many Americans and non-Americans have used in order to achieve some facsimile of the American Dream. Those who grow up within the auspices of the military lifestyle are often remarked upon as displaying certain characteristics that reflect this upbringing, with a penchant towards egalitarianism, a certain adaptability and gregariousness that reflects their geographically diverse and socially vibrant youths. Upon reaching adulthood and entering the civilian world, either through work or college, the real life prejudices, inequalities and the harshness of the verisimilitudes of unabashed capitalism, racism and classism are often an unexpected wake-up call.
All of the talking heads, politicians, demagogues and institutional acolytes of various stripes fall somewhere between that one in ten that dons a uniform and those nine in ten that do not, for whatever reason. These designations also include the disillusioned bloggers and conspiratorial dissenters, the counter-culture revolutionaries, righteous anarchists, disaffected libertarians and conflicted rebels who speak derisively of service to the USA and those who take it on, but who have never sacrificed a thought toward the practical defense of – or a day of their lives in the protection of – those they love, let alone those whom they profess to hate. The rights to freedom of expression that form the bedrock of these individuals arguments and derision are the very thing that the soldiers they castigate are fighting to honor and maintain, if not upon the shores – or within the deserts and mountains – of Southwest Asia, then upon the battlefield of their service to an ideal held in common by generations of Americans, no matter the race, ethnicity or creed. Arguments as to the validity of foreign wars fought for corporate gain are often specious in nature and concerned with deflecting attention from the key answer rather than the discomfiting but obvious question. Consider your own reasons for not joining the military, for instance, and extrapolate those as surrogate motives, recognizing that, in the end, and quite probably underlying all other rationalizations, the core reason for not doing so has to do with the possibility of making what soldiers and politicians alike call the Ultimate Sacrifice. Of facing death. Of facing Fear.
And, considering that this one, overriding and pervasive dread of personal material dissolution is the foundation for so many other dysfunctions in our society, from the personal to the community levels of aggregation, the probability of empathic resonation grows higher. Even soldiers are afraid of dying. If they’re not, we, as a society, tend to think that something’s wrong with them; and something’s wrong with people who can send other people to die without empathizing with those individuals or their families, and who do not recognize – or care – that their own fear of death is shared by others who make the decision to put their lives in other peoples hands, in the end – and beyond all economic considerations – for a higher purpose.
A higher purpose that is the same purpose that is shared by all of us who want the best for ourselves and our loved ones. Nations represent – to the individual – extended communities, which represent extended families, which represent us. By embracing our countries, we embrace our own highest aspirations. By believing in our countries, we believe in ourselves. And when that embrace fails, and that belief falters, the resulting trauma results in the kind of national and personal moralistic and spiritual dysfunction that afflicts nations on the verge of dissolution, rent within by competing factions and economic failure. Those whose expectations are left crestfallen by the weight of sheer despondency once the truth of much of this nation’s martial history is revealed are, perhaps, justified in their resultant lack of fealty to the national myths. As the legions of the disaffected grow, a certain listlessness and resentment becomes apparent in the national conversation, expressed as a strident, self-righteous indignation and declamation against the abuses of power. This describes the state of these United States, currently. The disillusionment with economic policies and social policies, the disillusionment with the state of racial relations, of sexual relations and of class relations soars as the American dream lies moribund, destroyed by enemies both domestic and foreign.
It seems that the dream has died; that the spirit has been defeated, until another dream, more encompassing and inclusive, can rise to take its place. Nationhood is a surrogate for a higher brotherhood, sisterhood, person-hood; the union of souls, the agglomeration of humanity as one family. Amongst the family of nations, the United States stands as an exemplar of countries, the one nation in the world founded, if not originally to make a single corpus of all diverse peoples in the world, one which has now taken on that mission in service of a higher form of oneness, even higher than that envisioned by its founding fathers. And yet, regardless of the state of the State, there is something beyond the state that has taken root and that has risen from the ashes of failed national daydreams to encapsulate a world-wide desire for freedom, that has resulted in what is being called the Arab Spring, and what has been expressed around the world as a rising tide of populist sentiment against the depravities of the Elite and the wanton disregard for humanity of the Corporate Overlords and their soulless, multi-national instruments of resource extraction, social and political evisceration and economic destruction. The spirit of personal freedom and of certain inalienable rights that is so much a part of the American expression of individuality, even and perhaps especially amongst those who consider themselves perennially suspicious of all state-sponsored “benefits” and oppressive structures of governmental domination, has become an American export, globalized and fully adaptable to local conditions on the ground wherever economic and social discrepancies, dissent and disillusionment may exist.
Within the United States, a new people have been born upon the face of the earth, at once fractious and contentious, united and seeking a higher form of consensus. A mixture of racial and ethnic populations have combined to merge old world lineages ancient in delineation, unbinding generations once tied to histories too visceral and immediate to be denied, until, for whatever reason, individuals uprooted themselves voluntarily – or were uprooted involuntarily – to make their way here, to the distant West, the lands of the setting sun. They knew the future, could sense that here, in this land, something special was to Become. Here, they knew, the destiny of their lineages would play out. Here and Now, their descendants engage themselves in the Struggle of the Ages, of employing the Will to Power in order to express that which is most innate and indicative of the intractable and indomitable will of humanity to persevere and beyond that, to thrive and express the very vibrancy of Life and of Creation itself.
The strength of Freedom has worked its magic upon bonds of dna and blood, creating new, genetic alliances, hybrid racial and ethnic groups of renewed vigor, a reality that is reflected in other nations around the world, but in none so intensely as in the United States of America. Old ideas of purity and hierarchical relationships between Masters and slaves, Rulers and the ruled, Owners and the owned, Haves and have-nots are crumbling beneath the overwhelming insistence of life itself upon the equality of incarnation, of new social and economic realities, of new understandings of the nature of consciousness and what it is to be human, as the world around us cries out for succor from the madness of the current Age. The result of these new, alchemical machinations is yet to be seen, but these portentous times awaken the inner call toward the manifestation of the highest of destinies, speaking at the collective level to all that is best, and worst, in humanity. Nations rise and fall, but the bonds that bind us in time and space remain, strengthened by the lives and love that we share, mostly unknowing, building aspirations with the mortar of hopes and dreams, soaring skyward manifest as a rainbow-hued bridge of light between the hallowed past and boundless and brilliant Future.