Now all the youth of England are on fire,
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies;
Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought
Reigns solely in the breast of every man.
They sell the pasture now to buy the horse….
The volunteer military has always been most enthusiastically, even devoutly, embraced by those who would not themselves dream of volunteering—or of encouraging their children to do so. Among the 535 members of Congress, just one—Senator Tim Johnson (D–South Dakota)—has an enlisted son in the Iraqi combat zone. Senator Johnson’s son, a staff sergeant in the 101st Airborne, has also been in harm’s way in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan—four wars in five years; only a handful of others on Capitol Hill have offspring in the ranks. The country may have been on fire with war fever, but not many young men and women sold the pasture to buy a horse. The last time that happened was in World War II.
In a recent New Yorker “Comment,” Roger Angell counted off nineteen friends, relatives, classmates, colleagues, and acquaintances who were killed or maimed in the air, on land, and at sea, Atlantic and Pacific, in France and Italy, on Saipan and Tinian and Wake Island. What was shocking about Angell’s piece was how matter-of-fact it was, how expected that war might bring death, how alone these men had been, without “embedded” correspondents to report their agonies on 24/7 news (“Target: Schweinfurt”), and how the presence of death had seemed a commonplace bad card in the nation’s winning hand.
Early last December, Richard Morin in The Washington Post reported the results of a poll conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics on the attitudes of 1,200 randomly selected college students toward a possible war with Iraq. Nearly seven in ten respondents said that the United States should take military action against Saddam Hussein, with a bare majority—51 percent—saying that any such deployment should be part of an international effort under the auspices of the United Nations. But when asked if military conscription might be an option to strengthen the overstretched American armed forces, the result was an overwhelming no—67 percent, or almost as many as favored the solution of force. Only 24 percent of those polled said they would “eagerly serve,” but one can wonder how that number would shrink when the letters began to arrive ordering the recipients to report for their pre-induction physicals. For interns at The Weekly Standard or National Review, where the martial instinct finds its most insistent voice, what Robert Kagan calls the military “career path” is not widely seen as a plausible future. Pulling a trigger is what José, Tyrone, and Bubba do, not early admission students at the better private universities.
That the enlisted volunteer military has often been characterized as a Hessian force of the unlettered and underprivileged, many of color (and in higher proportion than their civilian numbers), tends to a truculent defensiveness on the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.