Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chet E. Green: Knighthoods from cardboard swords - Why the nation exaggerates its praise for the military

  The evidence is in just two words, "hero" and "warrior." Overused, and inaccurately overused, they've been redefined. Once people had to voluntarily risk their physical safety to be heroes.

  Last March at a lecture he gave in Petoskey, Michigan, recent Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer referred several times to four names on his wrist. The men were slain fellow Marines and a Corpsman. "They're the heroes," he said. But today simply enlisting is called a brave act. As for the term "warrior," modern arms include night-vision gear, direct-fire rockets and computerized smart guns that hit people hiding behind rocks, but "warrior" conjures images like samurai and Prince Valiant. Chain mail can almost be heard clicking and chinging.

  Whatever happened to "serviceman" and "servicewoman?" Even the Stolen Valor Act is curious. Since 1923 congress has been proscribing the wearing of unauthorized military decorations. So why wait until 2006 to finally criminalize lying about them? What's going on here? Why try to ennoble military service this way? Answer: a sense of guilt.

  Part of the nation's deference to the troops resides in a lingering shame over the treatment of returning Vietnam War vets. May the nation never forget the indifference and the insults. Part of the shame stems from the knowledge that nobody works harder for the nation than its armed forces, elements of which are being misused, but which most of the country is willing to sacrifice. Those are hard words, but this is the nature of the contract in place for any society with a military. However, the arrangement should be galling for the United States because it's disconnected from that other 1% that isn't rich, the population in uniform.

  The American people and their military formally disengaged when the draft ended in 1973. It's not that the public doesn't care about the troops; it's that it cares less now. It's understandable. We've been a nation with two long, concurrent wars and nobody being forced to fight in them. War has become a matter for professionals, and it was free for the majority of the population. No extra taxes, no personal loss, no way to relate.

  Given the data, it's reasonable for people to be glad they or their kids don't have to "go in." People can't cite the numbers but they've heard the news: Army suicides were up 80% between 2004 and 2008 the last time they were researched with 25% to 50% of them directly related to combat commitments. And the suicides continue. Overmedication and lack of support contribute to the tragedy.

  Another Army study, conducted in 2009, found troops that had done three Afghanistan tours had more than double the rate of psychological problems vis-a-vis soldiers with one tour. Another study, focused on Iraq, showed the PTSD rate was almost 2.5 times higher after two deployments compared to one. The case of Sgt. Robert Bales comes to mind. He did three tours in Iraq. In WWII, GIs had 43 combat days, in Korea 180, Vietnam 260. Today it's 320. The trend is shameful. "An Army engaged in prolonged combat operations is a population under stress," said Dr. Michelle Cheval, a senior epidemiologist at the US Army Public Health Command.

  Multiple deployments should have been limited, tour duration, too, but somebody is understaffed. Here are more words being used, this time with ulterior meaning: "Thank you" and "Welcome home." Translation circa 2012: "We're grateful you went so we didn't have to go." But forget a draft. Spooked by what happened to the Vietnam-era military, the Pentagon's afraid of conscription in a nation where 70% oppose its reinstatement. And that's a real problem. Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel teaching at Boston University thinks, "If we are going to pursue the global war on terror, and if that means circumstances like Iraq won't be one of a kind, we don't have enough soldiers to get the job done. What do we do? Nobody knows." Meanwhile, some people are itching for a fight with Iran.

  In 1972 when ex-WWII bomber pilot George McGovern ran for president, he said if elected he'd push for a law requiring every member of congress voting for a war to serve in it. Now imagine a constitutional amendment requiring the commander in chief to have military experience. The privileged class might stop running for high office. But this is not the America of WWII with the pride that came from defending the country or whatever we were doing in Iraq or are doing in Afghanistan. In the Second World War even the privileged wanted to fight. George H. W. Bush was 19 and pulled strings so that he could be an underage Navy pilot without a college degree.

  Civil War soldiers called seeing action "seeing the elephant." It was a play on the chief attraction of the old circus, the greatest show on earth until their war. Because unless people see the elephant, they'll never feel the kind of anxiety that comes from living among high-explosive surprises or from being aware of the major possibility of the classic moment of truth when a sniper shoots them between the eyes.

  The next best thing is to know somebody that related something about the show. But most people don't know anybody who's been to either of our twin adventures, let alone both. War movies could come with live fire put over the audience. Extreme but it would help them understand. That will never happen, though, so the sympathetic or the curious will try to empathize and the conscientious will reproach themselves. No, until the burden on the military is lightened and the sacrifice shared, the accolades of "hero" and "warrior" conferred on everybody that wears or just hung up a uniform are disingenuous - knighthood bestowed with a cardboard sword.

  About the author: Chet Green, ex-US Navy Journalist, SE Asia and photographer/writer, African Horn; author, THE PLAY SOLDIER, a novel about false valor and the draw of the combat experience,

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