Security on a silver platter

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Greetings, Altercators, LTC Bob Bateman here again, standing in to give Eric a break for a day.

Does everyone remember all of the rumors of a coming draft, circulated ad nauseam via email and throughout the blogosphere in the spring and summer of 2004? Each version was more alarmist than the last, and most stated with utter confidence that should Bush win the election, he would be instituting a draft in June 2005. It was utter stuff and nonsense, yet I had numerous queries from very concerned and otherwise rational people who believed these tales. Alarmists and conspiracy theorists latched onto Rep. Rangel's bill in the House (somehow overlooking Rangel's party affiliation and his stated reasoning) for an all-encompassing draft, coupled that factoid with the regular, recurring, completely normal budgeting of money in the federal budget to maintain the shell of the Selective Service system, and made fantastic leaps of illogical fear.

We will not have a draft. Period.

But.

Somewhere in the past couple of years I have started to notice a new thread in our national discourse, a thread relating to national service and the fact that we are at war. The general thrust of these comments seems to be that the current generation (defined in any number of ways) are just not as strong, not as patriotic, not as capable or devoted as those Americans of earlier generations. Usually, at this point, somebody makes the argument that it is for this reason that we must have some form of national service or a draft. Being a historian as well as a soldier, I thought that I should bring some broader perspective to this issue. What follows was published in a professional journal of the United States Army:

The first step toward toughening up the Army is to toughen up the moral fiber of the Nation as a whole.

Your future recruit is born in an expensive hospital, the bill probably being paid for by taxation and charitable contributions. Immediately a bevy of nurses and female relatives start to coddle him. Perhaps his daddy has some of the old Spartan spirit left in him, but let him try to spank the toddler, and the wife divorces him for cruelty and gets custody of the child. When the boy starts to school he has female teachers. Let one of them spank him, and she is arrested or discharged, or both. The little fellow must never know what it is to suffer pain or be disciplined.

If the family is poor, does little Johnny go out and peddle papers or sweep out the grocery store to help support it? He does not. The family goes on relief, while Johnny goes down to the YMCA and listens to a lecture on 'Safety First.' ...

'Security!' 'Safety First!' Fiddlesticks. Mankind has always wanted security. When he had none he fought for some. Now he wants it on a silver platter.

Now, to put that in perspective, let me explain that this excerpt was pulled from an article by one Staff Sgt. Robert W. Gordon. SSG Gordon was writing in the Infantry Journal, and the coddled, namby-pamby, soft youth he was talking about were those wimps who would come to be known a few years later as "The Greatest Generation," because SSG Gordon wrote those words ... in 1936.

So, the more things change, the more they stay the same, non?

Hmmmm, actually, I am not sure I agree with that very Gallic sentiment either, because things do change. Societies change, ethics change, mores change. This is one of the things that makes the field of history so fascinating to me. Take, for example, the news stories which came out a few days ago about the ethics of troops in Iraq. On the face of it, these stories are stunning. This story in The San Diego Union-Tribune is fairly typical. On the surface it looks like the military is a disaster -- only 33 percent of Marines and 50 percent of Army soldiers would report a fellow unit member for stealing from civilians in Iraq. But what struck me in all of these fairly well reported stories is that they all look at the U.S. military as though it exists in isolation, as though our Marines and soldiers spring forth, fully grown, from some sort of factory. Most of the stories linked these survey results to repeated tours, and that is appropriate. But none of them linked the results to other stories about ethics in America. When one considers that in a 2002 survey, 75 percent of American youth said that they cheat, and other research that shows these trends in lying, cheating, and stealing (as an academic, I consider plagiarism to be theft) have been constantly increasing since the 1960s, why is anyone at all surprised? This is not to say I condone or am trying to explain away the statistics. I am just noting that your military is the product of your society.

While I am thinking about situational ethics, I note that this story is moderately funny, in an unintentional and sad way. It is a Washington Post article about how the secretary of commerce sent out a mass appeal to the whole department (of some 40,000 people) asking for volunteers. The response has been, well, tepid. But what caught my eye was the comment by the spokesman from Commerce. In explaining that there had been only 40 emailed responses, spokesman Richard Mills said, "All were interested in getting more information about the opportunity. We've been pleased that department employees have helped in Iraq, and we expect that to continue." But, right at the end of the story, comes the zinger. It is a classic journalism moment:

Mills, a politically appointed department spokesman, shared [National Weather Service spokesman Dennis] Feltgen's initial sense of privacy -- even more so -- when it comes to the question of serving in Iraq.

"I'd just prefer not to comment about my own personal situation," he demurred.

Thanks, buddy.

Finally, I note two stories coming out of the Middle East, both having to do with Israel and Palestine actually. The first is that a BBC journalist in Gaza who was kidnapped some weeks ago, seems to be alive. His captors are making demands.

This is heinous and self-destructive. But then when I read that al-Aqsa television, a station run by Hamas and broadcasting in the Palestinian territories, has appropriated a familiar American icon, and has that icon singing songs with these lyrics:

"The people firmly stand, singing this to you. ... Its answer is an AK-47. We who do not know fear, we are the predators of the forest" ...

"Oh Jerusalem we are coming. Oh Jerusalem, it is the time of death. Oh Jerusalem, we will never surrender to the enemy, and we will never be humiliated."

... I am less surprised. Of course, the fact that the icon in question is Mickey Mouse, and these songs come on a children's show, might disturb some. Only Der Spiegel seems to have picked up that story.

Washington Within Earshot:

Some days the culture that I live in just makes me laugh. As you might surmise, I work in the Pentagon, that wonderful five-sided house of confusion which, if you have a sense of the absurd, can lead to convulsive mirth. I once saw a sign, for example, which said, "Unauthorized Personnel are not permitted." OK. Got it. Twice. But the sign that made me laugh when I noticed it this week was our uniquely military version of the ubiquitous bathroom notice you see in public restrooms anywhere. You know the type, "If this bathroom needs cleaning, please call ..." (or see the manager, or whatever). But here in the Pentagon, well, we just take it to a whole new level.

I mean really, how can you not laugh when, while standing in the latrine doing your business, you look up and notice a sign in front of you which says, in all caps:

FOR SUPPLIES AND SERVICES, OR TO REPORT PROBLEMS, PLEASE CONTACT THE BUILDING OPERATIONS COMMAND CENTER.

Cripes, even our plumbers and cleaning folks have a freakin' "Command Center"!

You can write to LTC Bob at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Steve Hicken
Hometown: Tallahassee, FL

I don't believe that guns are a good thing. There are too many of them. But I've recently become convinced that the founders intended the Second Amendment to protect a broad but-not-unlimited private ownership of them.

I read the Times article on liberal law professors' recent shift towards that point of view with great interest. The tone of the article was that this was an inconsistency, a break with liberal doctrine.

I don't think that's the case. I think it is wholly consistent with liberals' broad reading of constitutional rights. What is inconsistent is conservatives' views on this issue. They, especially in recent years, want to have as narrow a reading as possible (sometimes more narrow than is really possible) of the rights expressed and protected in the Constitution, except for gun rights.

This is, I believe, another example of the intellectual emptiness of contemporary conservatism as well as an example of the inability of today's conservatives to admit either error or rethinking that you point out.

Keep up the good work.

Name: Charles Perez
Hometown: Marion, NY

Eric,

Where I think scholarship on the Second Amendment falls short is consideration of technological advances. Thinking on the First Amendment has been quite fluid, I believe, because of the rapid change of the technology to be considered (e.g. DVDs, digital books, MP3 players, etc. just in the past few years).

Where is the consideration of the advances in lethality, rate of fire or concealability of firearms? Just as the First has had to be continually re-interpreted, while never forgetting that the right to free speech is not absolute, why can't the increased chance for large-scale bloodshed (see Columbine, Virginia Tech) influence conservative (especially) thinking on the Second? Even what you or I might consider "no brainers" such as making large-capacity magazines and fully-automatic weapons illegal is fought tooth-and-nail by the NRA wing of the Right as though the FBI were about to march into every home in the country to confiscate weapons.

Sure the Second Amendment is vague; lots of things in the Constitution are vague. The framers left plenty of wiggle room in there for just such reasons. They hoped that we would be intelligent enough to know what to change and when.

Most of the time I'm pretty sure they were wrong.

Name: Larry Howe
Hometown: Oak Park, IL

Eric --

I'm at a loss to explain this and would love someone to provide an answer. In the first Republican presidential candidate forum, the question "Who here does not believe in evolution?" induced three candidates -- Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo -- to raise their hands. Why is it that no jaws dropped increduously, or no one in the audience let out so much as a flabbergasted chuckle? The asking of the question itself is enough to give us pause, but the answers show that it was warranted. Ten candidates, three don't "believe" in evolution. The answers of those three candidates reveal that this belief nonsense has brought us to a new point of absurdity. And these three were not fringe candidates using the process to simply attract attention--they hold high elective offices, state and federal.

We know that the rest of the civilized world has not been able to fathom how the current president is now in his second term. It's hard to imagine how the United States will be understood were someone who disregards the scientific foundations of evolution to become the next leader of the free world. In a society educated and knowledgeable about science, the answers that those three candidates gave would be enough to disqualify them immediately.

Sam Brownback is from Kansas, and we know how the science curriculum in that state was hijacked by creationists. But the tornadoes and flooding that tragically struck communities in his state this last weekend should compel the Kansas senator to become a little more educated about science; otherwise he's facing a tall order in explaining to his fellow Kansans what God has against them.

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