Best and Brightest Opt Out- Honor and Duty Take a Knock

On my second trip to Afghanistan in 2002, I heard a lot of stories about the bad old days when the Taliban briefly controlled Mazar-i-Sharif. They were hated not only for imposing fundamentalist Islamic law, but also because they were a mixture of ethnic Pashtuns and Pakistanis come to a Persian-speaking, heavily Turkic area. One night, when a few of the young men in the family I was staying with were reminiscing about growing beards to assuage the religious police, I blurted out, “But how come you didn’t fight them?”

They looked puzzled. The eldest answered, “Fight them? But we are not soldiers. I am an engineer, my brother is a doctor, my cousins are businessmen.”

“In America,” I explained, “if we were invaded, everyone would fight.” And I thought with some pride about my father and uncles, who had enlisted in World War II and returned with decorations.

A year later, in Baghdad, I met impressive young U.S. soldiers, including reservists with arty regular jobs and guys who’d enlisted because it was “the right thing to do.” American culture, I told myself, was built on the idea of the citizen-soldier.

Lately, I’m less sure about my boast, and reading AWOL has made me worried. This passionate collaboration between a Marine wife and a Marine father sharpened the sense I’ve been getting of a growing divide between civilian and military values, a divide symbolized by the controversy over the ROTC on elite campuses. Wasn’t the alleged reason for student opposition—the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy—a screen for deeper, less admirable feelings? After all, how many openly gay executives are there at the corporations that recruit freely on these same campuses? And how many of the campus protesters would be comfortable with bunkmates who flirted with each other? How many really cared about gay rights at all?

What the opposition to ROTC is really about may be something that AWOL co-author Kathy Roth-Douquet points out: In current civilian culture, “feelings matter most, our personal choices and beliefs are sacrosanct …. Military people don’t—can’t—make personal choice central.” And hand in hand with this division between civilian and military morality goes the disappearance of the concepts—and practice—of honor and duty in civilian life. A growing number of people from “good” families—maybe especially people from them—seem to have no restraint on their behavior, no acts they would shrink from because, well, they’re dishonorable, and no acts they would undertake, unpleasant as they may be, because duty requires it. The authors of AWOL have a phrase for it: “the underdevelopment of character in the upper classes.”

As Ms. Roth-Douquet points out, members of the military don’t fight because they relish combat, but because service is “a gift to the country, to fellow soldiers, an attempt to use your training to fulfill a task that the country has asked you to do.” The popular idea that career soldiers enjoy fighting is doubly false, because it “makes it okay for other people not to do it.” It’s about duty, not fun. Frank Schaeffer’s son John wrote home from boot camp that “by the end of his training, the Marine next to you is more important than you are.” That spirit of intense camaraderie is not fostered by, say, a two-year internship in investment banking, which is how many of our brightest graduates begin their professional life.

AWOL’s co-authors come from the media elite: Frank Schaeffer is a professional writer and veteran of the film industry, and Kathy Roth-Douquet, a Bryn Mawr grad and lawyer, has worked as an advance woman for Democratic Presidential candidates and in the Clinton White House. Both are whole-heartedly infatuated with military culture. Mr. Schaeffer was dragged kicking and screaming into military life when one of his sons surprised him by enlisting after high school. (In the last five years, he has published two successful books about his dialogue with his son, Keeping Faith and Faith of Our Sons.) Ms. Roth-Douquet married a Marine pilot on active combat duty.

Together, the authors write fervently about the need to address the widening gap between civilian and military values, which they believe stems from the avoidance of military service by the American elite. While our elites pay lip service to the “important job” enlisted men are doing, they never imagine their own children joining them. “If present statistical trends continue, we are fast approaching the day when no one in Congress … will have served or have any children serving.”

Prior to Vietnam, many if not most members of the upper middle class served in the military. “In 1956, 400 out of 750 in Princeton’s graduating class went into the military …. [I]n 2004, 9 members of Princeton’s graduating class entered the services, and they led the Ivy League in numbers!” Today, it’s hard to find policymakers whose children serve; once, it was the rule rather than the exception. Once, heroism in war was eagerly covered by the media; as AWOL points out, there’s a deafening silence about the bravery of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The authors take issue with the view of many in the career military that the volunteer army is the most efficient, and that class imbalances in the military are no different from class imbalances in Congress or in Ivy League schools. They also find the Army’s emphasis on material incentives wrongheaded. “The idea of reducing patriotic duty to a matter of personal choice, job options, and perks on the one hand, while tacitly writing off Americans who can afford to ignore the bribes on the other, seems to us to spell trouble.” The recruitment incentives cheapen what was always going to be a bad bargain. Military service shouldn’t, in fact, be seen as a bargain: It’s a sacrifice. Honoring selflessness is the way to get more people to be selfless.

AWOL offers some solutions to the problem. For example, the government should make efforts to recruit from elite colleges; should make ROTC a floating scholarship; and should even offer soldiers a full scholarship to any private or public institution that they can get into after four years’ service. Mr. Schaeffer and Ms. Roth-Douquet also recognize that the media could have a big impact in encouraging the privileged to serve, simply by what they choose to cover and how they cover it.

The authors present an imaginary rewrite of a New York Times editorial lambasting the volunteer army. The mock editorial ends with this:

“The all-volunteer force is not serving our country well. It is allowing the most privileged Americans to do in our country what Europeans have been accused by Americans of doing for the last fifty years: hiding behind the American military while profiting from it, yet contributing little to our common defense …. In that spirit, the New York Times has invited recruiters to meet with those of us at the paper who are physically and age-qualified to serve.”

Can you imagine?

Ann Marlowe’s The Book of Trouble: A Romance (Harcourt) was published in February.