Thursday, May 24, 2012

Third World Green Daddy 34: Service to country

From the title of this post, and as you read the first 80% of it, my readers may be wondering if I have misclassified it under the "Third World Green Daddy" category, or if it really belongs among my other threads of circuitous contemplation, self-questioning, and moralizing.  I will not be talking about cloth diapers, or eliminating toxic vapors from the living environment, or other such details of daily life lived greenly.

But I assure you that the post is correctly labeled, because the issue of our relation to the State and to the often violent world around us is certainly a part of living sustainably, perhaps the most important part.  A person can buy only Fair Trade products, use only natural building materials in his house, eat only locally-grown, organic food, and even work for worthy causes, and certainly all this is a part of living responsibly.  But unless people have explicitly engaged with the issue of their duty to their country, their neighbors, and their world, it is easy for an ostensibly green life to be little more than yet another sub-brand of self-satisfied, oblivious bourgeois life inside of a cocoon.

My recent mulling over this theme began after listening to a Pritzker military library presentation about a book called "AWOL:  The unexcused absence of America's upper classes from military service, and how it hurts our country".  The authors Frank Schaffer and Kathy Roth-Douquet, both self-professed members of America's economic and cultural elite and both with close family members serving in the military, point out that since Vietnam the upper classes in the US are less and less present in the armed forces.  They trace this state of affairs to citizens' increased ambiguity about the US's role in the world, and especially with regards to unjust wars like Vietnam.  Essentially they argue that this represents the replacement of a set of collective values and sense of duty to country with an individualized morality system, in which each person's qualms about violence or a particular policy or war take precedence over the general idea of service to country through thick and thin.

I think it's important that the authors bring up this topic.  As they point out, the US military machine exists, for better or for worse, and carries out many noble duties (airlifts to Lebanon after the 2006 Israeli invasion, policing international sea lanes) as well as ignoble boondoggles (Iraq, Afghanistan, Grenada).  Likewise, violence and force and good and evil exist in the world (though perhaps not as much as the militaristic false dichotomy-spewers would have us believe), and ignoring the ugliness in the world or refusing to take sides won't change this.  Their argument is that the nobility of military service doesn't have to do with the correctness of the cause at a given time (if it did, soldiers would hopscotch in and out of the military depending on their personal convictions about a given conflict), but rather with the idea of sacrifice, of subjecting yourself to the same fate and hardships and constraints as others of your countrymen.  In particular this last idea of sharing in collective sacrifice, and the fact that the military will continue to exist and act despite the personal misgivings of any individual, force a moral choice on each one of us.  "Principled" withdrawal from the debate doesn't exist, as withdrawal amounts to little more than allowing or even forcing others to do the dirty work of service to country.  In the worst case, a principled anti-military stance can be seen as pampered elites' scorn for the grunts who make their comfortable lives possible.

I see this especially in Colombia, where despite frequent human rights violations (which are rightly decried inside and outside of the country, though not as vociferously by the military and the right wing as they should be), the military is engaging in what I see as a perfectly legitimate pursuit, namely the securing of the national territory against illegal armed groups.  But even though the military is very clearly making daily life secure for most people (unlike in the US, where the public benefit from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is questionable if not obviously nonexistent), most of the middle class and the wealthy in Colombia avoid their obligatory military service, either through university attendance or through outright buying their way out of it, which I believe is actually legal!

So I agree with the authors' call to contemplation and self-searching for all of us regarding military service and other types of service to country.  There are, however, many details of their argument that I disagree with.

First of all, I don't believe in a conspiracy by what they call the "cultural gatekeepers" of our society (journalists, writers, filmmakers, etc.) to disparage the military or service to the country.  It is true that most popular media pulls us towards a self-centered ignorance of the real world, but at the same time in the aftermath of September, 2001, most media outlets were criminally uncritical and unquestioning of the militarism that swept through our government and our society.  That said, I agree with the book's authors that I have rarely if ever heard the media of my era call people to service, even in the warmongering early 2000s.

Secondly, the authors argue that military service is a great cultural leveler.  Before going to his son's military graduation, author Frank Schaffer had never had much intercourse with other social, economic, and racial groups of the United States.  I appreciate his point, and it's certainly a leveler for the wealthy to put their lives on the line in battle alongside everyone else.  Indeed, on a different scale I often feel that I am somehow fulfilling a duty to the world or at least being somewhat morally coherent by living in a developing country as opposed to a wealthy one, maintaining a level of material consumption that is not so far above that of the rest of the world.  But if social leveling and exposure to other groups were the main benefits of military service, I'd advise Schaffer and anyone else living in sheltered, WASP-y exurbs to simply move somewhere else in the country where they might live alongside people of other classes and colors, and share in their triumphs and their difficulties.  I'm not sure if my family would fit into what Schaffer and author Kathy Roth-Douquet would call America's cultural elite, but either way, because of where and how we lived, there has never been an impregnable wall between us and people of other social groups.  And I never had to pick up an M-16 to achieve that sense of shared space and purpose with my fellow Chicagoans, rich and poor alike.  So this part of the authors' argument rings hollow to me.

Another thing the authors bring up that I"m not sure if I agree with has to do with military deferral and exemptions of university students to military service.  I certainly see the procedural possibility for "dodging the draft" that was created by the system of valuing university education above military service, and I also see the perverse, elitist incentives that the system created by essentially sending the uneducated classes to the meat grinder and keeping out of harm's way those privileged enough to gain entry to and pay for college.  But at the same time I believe that in many cases someone may do more for the country's well-being and even for its geopolitical strength by becoming an engineer, or a teacher, or a doctor, or an agronomist, as opposed to a soldier.  I agree that it's harmful to have an entrenched cultural separation between lower-class soldiers and upper-class professionals, but I wouldn't want all of our country's best and brightest going to blow things up in foreign countries as opposed to tending after our own domestic affairs.

My most important departure from the argument of "AWOL" is on the issue of moral agency.  I agree with the authors that there is a certain hubris and privilege to an offhanded dismissal of service to country, but I am also aware that an unquestioning devotion to the State is dangerous and often leads to evil.  Of course the example everyone uses to probe such moral issues is the Nazi Holocaust.  Was it morally acceptable for German citizens in the 1930s and 1940s to serve in the military?  I would probably say so, especially once their territory was being attacked by the Allies.  What if the young recruit were posted to invade Poland or Russia?  Well, I'd have to say that those invasions were hostile aggressions and thus wrong, but I couldn't fault the footsoldiers sent to carry them out.  What about serving in a death camp in Poland?  We know from Nuremberg that "I was just following orders" is not a valid excuse for evildoing.  The problem is that a German citizen in the 1940s wasn't given a choice as to what actions of the State he would participate in, and which ones he wouldn't.  Any objection or disobedience, even if it were a principled stand against barbarity, would likely have been met with execution.  So though it is right for Schaffer and Roth-Douquet to lament any self-righteous blanket objections to war and military service, there also has to be a place in the debate for personal moral decisions, and preferably making these moral decisions won't result in large swaths of the populace being executed for insubordination. 

I have never served in the military, and at this point in my life it looks like I never will.  This causes me quite a bit of regret and shame, for all the reasons Schaffer and Roth-Douquet say it should.  My decision not to serve was not based on a scorn for soldiers or the proletariat classes of my country.  I have friends and family who have served, and I am very proud of them and awed not only by their service but by the confidence and wisdom that this has invested them with.  But at the same time I have a profound aversion to violence, and especially in the moment when I might have been most likely to join the military, I was trying to commit to a life of certain moral ideals that would have prevented me from ever considering the imposition of violence on another person, much less another nation.  Theological arguments for just war aside, I am still frankly unable to see how it might be possible to be a follower of Christ while bearing arms, but perhaps that is merely a shortcoming of my imagination or a lack of understanding of the world's complexity.  I believe that even Gandhi prized resistance to evil above all things, even if this resistance implied the use of violence.  All this said, for each of my officer corps friends who seem to feel that their military service was a noble, enlightening experience, I also know an enlisted man who saw no spiritual or moral or civic merit to his going to Iraq for a few years to yell at scared civilians and shoot at unseen enemies.

Even if I had seriously considered joining the US's military efforts, it would be hard to consider the military's results in the first decade of this century as anything short of disappointing, and hence I'm not sure how I would have felt after a stint in the armed forces. Aside from our keeping sea lanes relatively safe as we always have, our military achievements this past decade have consisted most notably in two wars waged based on flawed reasoning and the big-dick ambition of a few small-minded bureaucrats.  Iraq was never a threat to us or our allies, as was clear to any thinking person even in the heady days of the yellow-cake pseudo-intelligence.  Now thanks to us Iraq has gone from a stifling but stable and somewhat prosperous dictatorial society to an all-out ethnic civil war to what now seems a once-again (precariously) stable underdeveloped shithole.  Afghanistan and the Taliban were not responsible for any terrorist attacks on US soil, and after a decade of war there, we have not brought to justice the people involved in the World Trade Center attacks.  Instead of being brought to trial and forced to face the world as a faded, impotent shadow of himself, Osama bin Laden, one of the few guys in all these wars that can actually be considered a valid, important target for the US, was subjected to extrajudicial assassination, a course of action that's about as far as you can get from the ideals that the US is supposed to stand for.  Given all this, I don't think I would have found much meaning or nobility in serving in the military during the past decade (unless it were in the Navy, patrolling the high seas), except perhaps for the type of abstract value of service for its own sake that Schaffer and Roth-Douquet advocate.

To their great credit, the authors of "AWOL" point out that military service isn't the only valid service to country that they'd like to see more of.  They speak of the Peace Corps, Americorps, and I believe the State Department as other avenues of service that respond to the same sense of shared destiny and sacrifice for a larger cause.  That said, they also express rightful dismay that it seems these latter programs are the preferred or exclusive path for the university-educated economic elite of the US, who leave it to the middle and working classes to risk life and limb in the military.  This is not only a perpetuation of social inequality, but it also robs the military of a whole pool of people who are surely intelligent, thoughtful, and devoted, and who might help to right whatever shortcomings the military has today.  On the other hand, perhaps these non-military career tracks are the only morally defensible options to those who desire to serve their nation and their neighbors, but can't fathom their own participation in unjust wars.  I don't know what to think of this, though I think the authors are on the right track when they say that not everyone needs to serve in the military, in their opinion, but that people should at least be willing to consider it, especially people in the upper classes as a group.

For my part, I am certainly considering service in USAID someday (if they'll take me).  This would not only appeal more to the coward in me, who doesn't like the idea of getting shot at (though perhaps it's actually more dangerous to go into the world's troubled neighborhoods unarmed with USAID than armed with the military!), but it would also seem to be a more effective use of my skills as a development agronomist.  There are a lot of things about USAID that I might not wholly agree with, both on an operational level and in terms of the larger mandate the government has set for it, but I would be proud to swallow these qualms temporarily to feel like I were serving the greater mission of my country.  This is surely similar to how I'd feel if I were in the military, but again, without the ultimate moral transgression of using violence on others.  I have friends who work at State and USAID, and I respect them in much the same way I respect our soldiers.  Who knows if a future stint of service there would make me feel as if I'd done my part for the USA in the same way that soldiers do their part?  Who knows if it should?

I could even take my questioning further to ask if general service to humanity would or should count as a valid outlet for the call to service.  If one works for an NGO or a charity improving people's lives, fostering economic well-being, or fighting for the recognition of human rights, is that a service deserving of the same level of respect as service in the military?  What if that work involves putting oneself in the line of fire, both random and targeted (as all too often happens with people working to defend human rights and fight social injustice)?  Is an affiliation with a particular country a strike against moral integrity (as the interests of one country will always necessarily be at odds with the interests and the wellbeing of some other people), in which case the most moral way of obeying the call to service would be working for some non-governmental entity?  Or on the contrary, is the humanist, non-national way of doing humanitarian work too wishy-washy, too morally flaccid as compared to the definitive stands of a national body?

At any rate, I'll close this back-and-forth moral hand-wringing by bringing the question back to my personal life, and thus show my readers how all this pertains more directly to the Green Daddy theme.  Whatever my own shortcomings or incoherence when it comes to service to country, there can be no doubt about my wife's convictions and her corresponding actions.  In her current job and in past jobs she has worked with the government in different capacities, helping farmers to recover their economic livelihoods after eradication of their illegal coca crop.  This is of course key to bringing peace to Colombia, because the illegal armed groups that destabilize and terrorize the country depend on illicit crops for financing, and depend on a desperate peasantry in remote regions to provide them with recruits and moral legitimacy as the supposed protectors of the rural masses.  My wife's work not only implies occasional visits to war-torn regions where she is putting her life at (a hopefully minor and manageable) risk, but it also puts her in a position where she's trying to serve the country's greater interest as represented by government directives, while at the same time trying to ease the potential collateral damage on the local populations that are directly harmed by these directives.  So she is serving both country and countrymen in a very real way.  As I hinted at before, she is not in the same situations as a soldier would be, but on the other hand, she's not armed like a soldier either, so I consider her a very brave, committed person.

There are many things in the current government program that she or I might not entirely agree with.  Right now Colombia is undertaking a process they call consolidation, in which the State tries to establish a presence in remote places where it has been largely absent for decades, if not forever.  This means that aside from reestablishing military control over an area, the State sends in judiciary staff, police, public works agencies, road maintenance crews, school staff, and even tries to implement some rapid-impact economic development projects to gain the trust of its citizens.  This is a big improvement in many ways from past policies with an entirely military focus, which the country adopted for a long time in its war against insurgent groups.  That said, many of the civil administration functions in the consolidation program are initially assumed by military personnel, hence creating a de facto military government in these areas, which I'm sure local citizens feel ambiguous about after having their coca (and sometimes their food) crops, which is to say their means for survival, forcibly eliminated by that same military.  At any rate, all this is to show that despite some reservations, Caro believes in the right and the duty of the State to establish a presence, bring the rule of law, foster peace, and generally improve life in war-torn regions, and I think it is because of this that she has bravely taken a part in the process.  She speaks up about those aspects she doesn't agree with, but she doesn't simply withdraw in a self-righteous sulk when she encounters difficult ethical decisions.

So for a few days Sam and I are home alone, praying that Mom will come back safely.  It is obviously not at all as hard as the uncertainty and worry and long stretches of separation faced by military families, and I am not trying to compete to acquire some sort of merit badge for suffering caused by my spouse's service to country.  But I am nevertheless proud to be doing my part on the home front to help my adopted country, and sharing even if only a little in the sacrifices we all need to make if we are to have a lasting peace.

In the end one may decide that the State is an inherently unjust, immoral or amoral construct, and that any service to it amounts to evildoing.  One may, on the contrary, unquestioningly align one's life and interests with those of the State, and serve accordingly, finding value and moral justification in the ideal of service.  Or one may occupy one of the millions of possible gradations between these two extremes.  If any of these positions are adopted through a sincere, critical, and most importantly an ongoing assessment of the moral issues involved, I have to respect them.  But I can't accept an unthinking avoidance of the issue of service to country.

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