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Rumors of War

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This week-end, the part of my family that has been in Connecticut Forever–longer than the Indians, if you listen to some of them–fulfilled that part of their family mythology that they seem to be proudest of:  they have now had at least one person die in every war the United States has ever fought. 

The other side of my family, the Greek immigrant side, tends to counter this sort of declaration by saying that they’ve had at least one relative fight in every war since they’ve been here, but their people tend to come back.

It was an odd time to hear this news, because I’ve got an e-mail from Robert about the decline and fall of  Western Civilization I’ve been intending to post for comment, and I’m reading the Brenda Wineapple biography of Nathaniel  Hawthorne, and it all sort of connects.

About the war business, for instance:  Robert has noted a couple of times, both on and off, that he thinks that Americans are no longer willing to take up arms to defend their country, and that the existence of some small number of them who buck the trend doesn’t change the disastrous nature of that trend.

But I wonder if that’s true–I wonder especially if there was ever a time when the majority of young American males went joyously into battle to defend the United States.  And it seems to me that once we get past the  Revolution–and maybe not even then, although it’s hard to determine–the only time when it was ever true was for the  Confederacy, and the Confederacy lost.

Lincoln had to institute a draft to get enough soldiers to fight for the survival of the union, and although there were a few “upper class” young men who joined up, lots of others took advantage of the fact that you could buy your way out of a draft notice by doing just that.  We needed drafts in WWI and WWII, too, never mind in Korea and Vietnam.

In this latest round of fighting–and in fact, in wars as we’ve fought them starting in Korea–I think the problem is more a lack of feeling that there is a clear and present danger.  Part of this is definitely because a lot of these wars were fought in nations that the people of the United States had a hard time connecting to anything immediately to do with life in the  United States.  They were fought for ideological reasons.  The domino theory might be true or false, but it was out there somewhere, not here.

Not being able to make the mental leap for Korea and  Vietnam is a lack of imagination, not of patriotism.  I think a lot of people who would be willing to jump up and defend the nation if she were directly attacked had a hard time figuring out what was going on in Saigon that required their sacrifice.

In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, there was a lot more enthusiasm for Afghanistan, again because I think it was relatively easy to see what the issue was.  There was Al Qaeda, and it was headquartered in Afghanistan, and it blew down the twin towers, so let’s go get it.

Whatever you think of the case for war in Iraq, it was made badly.  And to really explain it would have required an administration that did not think of the American people as too stupid to follow the line of argument and that was then willing to put that line of argument out there as many times and in as many ways as it was necessary to get it across.

Instead, the administration seemed to grab for whatever sound bite was available to hand when the microphones were turned on, and to go for easy sloganeering aimed at people’s emotions instead of their brains.  If W. is going to be faulted for being a very bad president, I think his worst performance will  have been in this, in going in to a war he wasn’t willing to make a strong case for, in underestimating the American people’s ability to understand and follow a line of reasoning.

As for the other kind of willingness to serve–the willingness of our best and brightest people to run for elected office–I think the problem is not in an unwillingness to serve, but in an unwillingness to subject oneself to scrutiny of a kind meant to disqualify anybody who wasn’t produced fully adult from a virgin birth the day before yesterday.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think much of people who dump their friends or denounce them because those friends have done something or said something or even continue to believe something that the press corps and the other political party will view with shock! horror!  Nor do  I think much of people who only associate with people they agree with, or who are unable to maintain close bonds of love or friendship because of political or ideological differences.  I’ve even got problems with people who dump good friends or relatives who have actually gone to jail.

Then, of course, there are the candidates themselves–ever smoked dope?  flunked out of school?  snorted cocaine?  got caught drunk driving?  joined a radical political group in college?  mistakenly hired an illegal alien?  written an op-ed or a letter to the editor that was off the wall?  It’s all an issue, as is your wife’s abortion and your daughter’s refusal to have one, which will be portrayed, in both cases, as you forcing the poor women to do it your way.

Let’s face it.  The best of every generation will almost inevitably have a checkered past.   Very bright, very ambitious, very principled people–especially very principled people–tend to get themselves into trouble when they’re young.   Very bright people born into situations that look hopeless tend to get into a lot of trouble when they’re young, and we’ve pretty much ruled them out of ever holding public office.  Come in from the cold and  play by the rules, we tell the street kids who are joining gangs these days–but don’t hope to get any farther than a workaday job.  You’ve been in a gang.  You can’t run for President no matter what you make of the rest of your life.  And you’re not going to end up CEO of a major corporation, either, because they check, and they don’t like your record.

There are no second acts in American lives, F. Scott Fitzgerald said, and Richard Nixon proved him wrong, but  we’ve created a system in which we expect the people we elect to not actually be people.  And not just the people we elect, either.  There’s a rap artist out there called Snoop Dogg who has done, I think, remarkable things with his life.  He started out not just poor, but ghetto.  He ran with a very violent gang in LA.  Most of the friends he had growing up are either dead or doing long prison terms for drugs, rape and murder.

Snoop Dogg has made a pile of money from his music, acted (and not badly) in a few movies, started a foundation to help kids in the kinds of neighborhoods where he grew up, and launched a reality show highlighting his life as a hands-on father to his children.  But run for something?  Not a chance.  He’s never condemned that gang he was in!

Why should any drunk get sober or drug addict get straight, why should any felon reform or any prostitute give up the street, if their lives are to be forever circumscribed by what they did at fifteen or eighteen or twenty-one?  And if they’ve managed to beat the odds and make it up the ladder by successfully hiding that stuff, why should they try to run for public office when what will inevitably happen is that all that stuff will become the issue, and they’ll not only lose the election, they’ll lose everything they’ve managed to achieve up to then?

Then, of course, there’s the issue of flip flops–apparently, the only politicians we want are the ones who take a stand in college and never deviate from it, not an iota.  New evidence?  Doesn’t matter.   Evolution in your thinking?  Doesn’t matter.  More maturity?  Doesn’t matter.  You can’t change your mind.  That’s a flip flop!

It’s not that the best people don’t want to serve their country.   It’s that we don’t want them to serve, because the best people will not be able to fit into the iron maiden we have created to validate our politicians.

It was one of the brighter spots of this last election that the Obama people did very little of this to McCain (and the public didn’t listen–Keating Five?  What’s that?) and that Republican attempts to do it to Obama (Reverend Wright! Bill Ayers! Snorting cocaine in college!) had absolutely no effect on anybody that I know of. 

I’m going to go do some housekeeping stuff on Living Witness, and then I’m going to settle down for the rest of the day with that biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  I’m at the place where Hawthorne is attending Bowdoin College with Franklin Pierce, where they have rounded up several of their classmates to form a club that does things like drag entire kegs of wine into the Maine woods and then drink themselves silly so that they can go rampaging around causing trouble in town, vandalizing stores and pubs, scaring women on the street, and otherwise coming close to getting themselves expelled from what was then a strictly Calvinist college.

Some years after they graduated, Franklin Pierce became the fourteenth President of the United States.

Written by janeh

December 7th, 2008 at 9:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Rumors of War'

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  1. A side issue: the Confederate States drafted first, and the Confederate conscription laws are still the most comprehensive in North American history. For that matter, Washington’s Army during the Revolution was pitifully small. At peak, the Continentals were a bit over 1% of the population, and sustained by a draft. (For those who don’t do this, 1% is the “rule of thumb” PEACETIME military strength of a modern–Louis XIV forward–state, and 10% the wartime maximum, which we reached in the Civil War and in WWII.)
    To go joyously into battle, you need to be a long time between wars–and have a very short war.

    My worries are on two points–the lack of the initial wave of volunteers, and that the upper reaches of our society no longer seem to feel a military obligation. Pearl Harbor produced lines around the block at recruiting stations–and mind you, we ALREADY had a draft–and even then Patton wrote that his WWI soldiers wanted to fight, where his WWII troops were only willing. 9-11 produced a bunch of annecdotes about volunteers, but it didn’t produce a surge of enlistments or a sharp rise in the quality of those enlisted. I am not surprised enthusiasm faded. I’m surprised it was barely there in the first place.

    As for the upper crust, well, the reason the Ivy League can get away with its anti-ROTC posturing is that no one is pushing back. The last time anyone in America felt that a life of privilege obliged you to take the lead when the country went to war was about 1964. (Kerry, of course, and Pershing’s heir died commanding a rifle platoon in the Delta. They weren’t the only ones. But it ended with them.) Obama spoke on Memorial Day weekend to college graduates about ways to serve the country, but never even suggested military service.

    As for requiring stainless reputations of our politicians, well, putting Obama to one side, I’d say the country which elected Shrub, Clinton and Nixon is willing to overlook a certain amount of youthful–or even not so youthful–misbehavior. But I think it’s entirely appropriate to examine that misbehavior–in fact all the previous behavior we can find out about and and all their friends and “associates”–and determine for ourselves what is relevant.

    It’s easy to find out what our politicians have promised. We need to know whether they’re competent enough to keep those promises if they want to, and honest enough to try. If someone has a better way of determining that than looking at what they’ve done before, and who they keep company with, please share it with us.


    7 Dec 08 at 12:24 pm

  2. How is WW I seen in the US?

    In Canada, and I think in the UK and possibly other Commonwealth countries, it’s seen as the last time the lower classes/ colonial troops/ ordinary guys actually believed the ‘fight for king and country in distant lands’ propaganda. WW II might have been the ‘last good war’, but the automatic follow-authorities’-orders-to-battle idea wasn’t there. Canada got the last bit of its political independence – indepedence in foreign policy matters – in the trenches of WW I. (Canadians who unquestioningly follow the foreign policy lead of another country haven’t learned their own history.)

    Anyway, I don’t know much about military history, but I wonder if WWI is a signpost in the development of changing ideas towards war, particularly war in distant countries. Or maybe it was different in the US – you had all that isolationist stuff going on in both WW, so maybe the disillusionment with distant wars (theoretically in defense of the home country’s political interests, but not directly of its territory) in the US came with Viet Nam. Or maybe there were ‘Hell, no, I won’t go’ people during the Boer War, the Hundred Year’s War, etc etc., and I just don’t know enough history to know about it. I do know that during some periods while the upper classes might out of duty or out of a limited occupational choice go off as officers, poorer parents were much less happy at the thought of a son ‘going for a soldier’ (even if he was all enthusastic) because he might never come back at all. They appeared to have preferred he get a nice apprenticeship in the town and start courting some young woman.

    I do think there’s a big difference between fighting for one’s own territory, and fighting wars in distant lands. The latter can seem much less necessary to the average person.

    We just had our 100th soldier die in Afghanistan. I don’t think public support for that war (such as it is) would be there if we had thousands die in a day, like we did in WW I. It was a different world back then, and even so, I think the massive losses with little or no resolution – all to be done again in 1939 – changed our culture.



    7 Dec 08 at 8:03 pm

  3. In Australia, in both World Wars I and II, there was enormous pressure brought to bear on individuals who were seen to be reluctant to volunteer. White feathers, an unofficial badge of cowardice, were sent to men not obviously too old or disabled and who were, for whatever reason, not in uniform. In most cases, I understand, where the senders could be identified, they were women with family fighting overseas. They did not discriminate between those who had volunteered and been excluded from military service for good reasons, eg medically unfit, in “reserved” essential civilian occupations, eg farming, essential industries and so on, and those who simply did not enlist. There was no conscription in Australia in World War I, but there was in World War II, although conscripts could not be sent overseas against their will. (Go figger!)

    Back in World War I, there was a lot of jingoism about, balanced by a lot of Irish reluctance to fight for King and country. In WWII, with the country just coming out of many years of depression, and with high levels of unemployment, Army recruiters more than filled their quotas from this huge pool of unemployed. It got to the point where the Services simply could not readily absorb, equip and train the manpower on offer and, my father was just one of thousands of married men with families, for example, who having volunteered, whose enlistment was deferred for months and in some cases for years.

    Since WWII and the creation of the United Nations, I think people have been much less inclined to rush into uniform, believing that the UN is the means to avoid conflict. There are many who, given the existence of the UN – insist that armed conflict – of any sort – can never again be justified. Also, people are generally much more politically aware and less trusting of politicians. Of course, some say that people are also much more cynical than they used to be in the “good old days” but I think that’s just another way of saying that they are better educated.


    7 Dec 08 at 10:47 pm

  4. It sounds like there were significant differences between Canada and Australia during the period. The white feather thing happened in Canada in WW I – there’s an incident in one of L.M. Montgomery’s books (author of Anne of Green Gables; this was the one describing Anne’s children’s experiences in WW I). I don’t remember hearing of such incidents in WW II, which doesn’t meant they didn’t happen. Canada had conscription (and conscription crises) in both WW I and II; in both cases the cause was a reluctance of the Quebeckers to fight in a foreign and British cause, and the result was a division between the Anglo and Francophones. The WW I crisis was far more severe than the WW II one – perhaps because the PM of the day (WW II)(he who got political advice from his mother, dog etc after they died!) acted very cautiously, fearing a repeat of the WW I crisis, and in spite of shortages of volunteers, didn’t institute conscription until very late in the war. Few WW II conscripts were sent overseas to fight, but some were. To quote Mackenzie King “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription” which has to be a prime example of a politician sitting on the fence!

    Newfoundland (not part of Canada in either war) has a somewhat different history. I get the impression that there was enormous support for WW I, and an unusually high percentage of the male population volunteered – a great many of whom were wiped out. We still remember Beaumont Hamel (during the Battle of the Somme) on July 1, which is also Canada Day. Maybe Newfoundland held its ties to the Empire more strongly than Canada did. Even my grandfather was proud to fly the Union Jack, although I think it was men of his generation who said things like ‘When Haig came to visit, they treated him like a hero. They should have hanged him” so pro-Empire sentiment wasn’t universal. We’ve also got a lot of people of Irish ancestry, but they don’t seem to be politically Irish, if you know what I mean. Not particularly anti-English, no interest in the IRA, lots of music, RC by religion (if possibly ‘socially Catholic’ – I think those were the terms used by a Catholic priest I know to describe many of his parishioners)

    Probably due to an politically eventful inter-war period, there doesn’t seem to have been so much in the way of unified response in NL to WW II. Some troops were sent overseas, but the NL Regiment wasn’t. Newfoundlanders joined Canadian and British armed forces and merchant marine – which I gather was about as dangerous as being in the armed forces, with less pay and recognition! Most of the stories about WW II surround the big bases, especially the big American ones, which were established here. It was quite a prosperous time in an often impoverished area, although I don’t think all the young men appreciated the American competition for young women!

    I’m surprised how much I remember with only a bit of googling!

    I don’t think most people around here even think of the UN as a means to avoid war. Oh, we’re all very proud of the Canadian role as peacekeepers, but even though that’s sponsored by the UN, I think we tend to take the credit ourselves! The inherent difficulties in peacekeeping in places in which there is not only no peace to keep, but little interest in peace among the combatants, one or all of whom think they might still win, has been mentioned publicly. i don’t think there are many strong pacifists – that is, people who as you say “insist that armed conflict – of any sort – can never again be justified.”, although as always, there are a few. I think there’s some support for the war in Afghanistan because of the Taliban’s protection of the people responsible for 9-11, but little or none for Iraq, which is commonly seen as having been started for the benefit of the US in some way. I think that self-defense, or peacekeeping, assuming it’s set up properly so it can really work, would be seen as justifiable reasons for war, but regime change – even of truly despicable dictator’s regimes – would not be.

    But my opinion may not be unbiased.


    8 Dec 08 at 8:34 am

  5. In Oz, there were two referendums during WWI on the issue of conscription and both were defeated with the Irish-born Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Archbishop Mannix, being blamed for his leadership of the opposition to the proposals. I don’t think this was the only reason the Irish were despised in Australia with good old English snobbery and anti-Catholic bigotry being already alive and well, but what with the “troubles” in Ireland, and the apparent treachery of the Irish Catholics in their opposition to conscription, it was quite a few years before anti-Catholic prejudices began to disappear. Notwithstanding the fact that the numbers of Irish-Australian soldiers (and casualties) in WWI were probably at least proportional to their percentage of the population, it wasn’t until well after WWII that things settled down.

    I think that the present calls by various world leaders for action to be taken to remove Robert Mugabe prove once and for all that regime change can be a justifiable reason to go to war. I used to believe that Bush, Blair and Howard et al were wrong to have gone to have invaded Iraq, but I changed my mind on that a few years ago now. There are plenty of things that could and should have been better done better, particularly in persuading people of the reasons, but when you read an insider’s account like Feist’s “War and Decision”, it’s easier to understand why there were so many apparent screw-ups. If Feist is right (although I’m sure there is another side to the stoy), both State and the CIA ought to be cleaned out from top to bottom as being a nest of incompetents and worse. But I think that the invasion was the only realistic option available. I think subsequent events, eg Iran’s development of a nuclear warfare capability, have demonstrated that the risks of leaving Saddam in place outweighed the arguments against his removal.

    Which brings up a point I intended to mention in my previous message. In “the good old days”, which I define as up to the 1950s or thereabouts, even though most ordinary people did not have tertiary educations, high school educations were much more rigorous than they are today in most of the practical skills at least, ie the three Rs. But more importantly, kids leaving school were forced to face harsh reality very quickly. Their families, as a generality, couldn’t afford to keep them and they very quickly found themselves working very hard to supplement the family incomes. At least three complete generations of 20th century young people also found themselves fighting for their very lives, and dying in large numbers in the World Wars and other conflicts like Korea and Vietnam. Many of the survivors were traumatised to an extent, and in sheer numbers affected, probably rarely if ever matched in history. They were expected to get over it without much help, and most did. They were forced to grow up very young and very quickly.

    By contrast, the younger baby boomers and subsequent generations for the most part are quite different breeds of cat. I think that the most common and notable trait of those generations is their persistent infantilism, for want of a better word, although I think it comes closest to describing the generational Pathology. Not only are these kids spoilt rotten in material terms by comparison with their grand-parents, they are encouraged _not_ to fend for themselves as adults have always been required to do in the past. As Theodore Dalrymple has demonstrated, whole government bureaucracies exist with little other purpose than to ensure that young people never have to grow up.

    So, it’s hardly surprising that many, perhaps most, choose not to rally round the flag, boys. It’s too much like hard work.


    8 Dec 08 at 9:37 am

  6. Ah, I keep forgetting the social advantages of being Anglican and of English ancestry! That comes of being born into a hard-working but never wealthy family and raised in a small rural parish which was merely one of many Christian denominations in a really odd little town (a ‘company town’, if you know the term). My mother claims her mother-in-law, a devout American Methodist, looked down on Episcopalians, presumably for their snobbery as well as for their theological faults!

    I’m not saying the relationships between Catholics and Protestants were all happiness and light here – in earlier days, there were all the anti-Catholic laws of the Motherland, and there were some religious riots in the 1800s. But by my youth, there was a sort of separate-but-equal situation, which has since morphed into integration.

    Anyway, in Canada as a whole, the French always get the blame for being political troublemakers, not the Irish!

    I’m still not convinced that regime change by force ever really works, particularly if the regime in question is in a country that doesn’t have much of a local tradition of democratic rule to fall back on. It just never seems to work! Even in Japan, which wasn’t noted for democracy, you had a long, long history of central government and ways of passing on power from generation to generation without a civil war. It’s like a family battle; once a third party weighs in, the combatants tend to either gang up on him, or try to manipulate him into acting against the rebels, or corrupt dictators or on behalf of the revolutionaries or ‘legitimate’ government.

    I do think we are incredibly wealthy and spoiled now. There are so many people who don’t feel the need to work or pay their own way – and parents who allow them to do so! It isn’t a case of government bureaucracies doing it!

    I have to remind myself that I also know a lot of young people who get an education and work hard. Maybe the others are exceptions.


    8 Dec 08 at 10:04 am

  7. cperkins

    8 Dec 08 at 10:22 am

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