POLITICS APRIL 12, 2006
10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military
Edited by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg
(The New Press, 128 pp., $14.95)
Click here to purchase the book.
When it comes down to it, military recruiters are salespeople, and like good car salesmen, good military recruiters conceal the downsides of their product. Of course with military recruitment the ante is upped: Being swindled into buying a lemon will set you back a chunk of change; a bad experience in the military will lead someplace worse than an auto mechanic's waiting room. That's exactly why 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military, a new book coauthored by Cindy Sheehan and ten other antiwar activists and journalists, could have served a worthwhile purpose. Deciding whether or not to join the military is a decision loaded with consequence; and with all of the military's glossy campaigns to get young Americans to enlist--which include enlistment bonuses, the enticement of free airline travel, and, at one point at least, free music downloads--it's a good idea to get all the information out on the table.
But getting information out on the table isn't the only thing 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military does; it also implicitly advocates the end of America's role as a force to be reckoned with abroad, and, as a means to that end, the undoing of the U.S. military itself. The book's authors hold certain ideas above all others: that war is hell, fighting is mean, and dying is sad. These things are true, of course. But you do not have to believe dulce et decorum est pro patria mori to view American might as a necessity. In fact, if liberals believe the military is a troubled institution, which 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military does successfully illustrate, then it should behoove us to embrace the armed forces, not reject them. How else will our military transform into the force America desperately needs it to become? As threats to liberal society grow more emboldened every day, the imperative to fix the military, not destroy it, becomes stronger.
Slated for publication next month, 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military will hit bookstores during a troubled time for the U.S. military. From a personnel standpoint, our armed forces are faltering. Two studies released in January independently argued that the military is dangerously overstretched. One report commissioned by the Pentagon bluntly stated that "[t]he demands for Army ground force deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq are not likely to decline substantially any time soon," and that the United States "risks having many of its soldiers decide that a military career is too arduous or too risky an occupation for them and their families to pursue." The other report, prepared by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Defense Secretary William Perry, concluded that "[t]his strain, if not soon relieved, will have highly corrosive and potentially long-term effects on the force." These are facts that many already assumed but that the military had been loathe to admit; as late as January 2005, Army officials were assuring journalists that the challenges facing the U.S. military were not yet a crisis. So it was surprising when General George Casey, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq, offered this response to the January 2006 reports: "The forces are stretched. I don't think there is any question about that." The good news is that the top levels of Washington agree about the military's post-Iraq prognosis. The bad news, of course, is that the prognosis looks grim.
Other problems plague the military as well: Veterans are not receiving proper medical care; the number of military-related sexual assaults has recently spiked; and gays and lesbians continue to be discharged, even after risking their lives for their country. In Iraq, the military has proven itself ill-prepared to handle reconstruction and state building. And then there are the issues of torture and abuse. Liberals can blame Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush for allowing America's image to be tarnished abroad, and they should. But they should also present affirmative ideas for fixing these problems. If all of the energy aimed at unraveling the military would instead be focused on changing it, maybe the military could become better at doing what we desperately need it to do.
All of which makes the timing of 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military that much more specious. To this group of authors, news of our military's difficulties is good news, for the United States and its military represent some of the most serious problems facing the world today. If the Pentagon, Albright, Perry, and Casey are to be believed, the military is in serious trouble. The authors admit this; Louis and Marti Hiken write, "The military is having a tough time meeting its recruitment goals. There are not enough troops available to send to Iraq." And a sentence later, here is the advice they offer young Americans: "The best advice we can give is not to join in the first place." Paul Rockwell argues that "[r]efusing to enlist is more than a career decision. It is a moral and political act, a contribution to the burgeoning, international movement for a better, more peaceful world." Not only that, but joining the military is unpatriotic, writes Rae Abileah of the antiwar women's group Code Pink: "[I]t takes more honor and courage to dedicate one's life to working for social change. Teachers, community organizers, activists, engineers, public defense attorneys, lobbyists, and artists are the true patriots." (The true patriots? Lobbyists?) The explicit argument is clear: No one should enlist in the military. Left unsaid is that if no one enlisted, America would have no military at all. Presumably, this is what the authors want.
Many liberals would be sympathetic to this argument. The left, especially its younger generation, is increasingly uncomfortable with American power. As blogger Matthew Yglesias has pointed out, for many liberals the Iraq war was a "formative trauma," an event that forced them to reconsider the effectiveness of American military might. In March, the editors of The Nation asked, "Why does the Pentagon need so much money, now that the Iraq War is supposedly winding down?" In a recent issue of Mother Jones, James K. Galbraith rails against liberal hawks who "would withdraw U.S. forces only to use them again, in another (but, of course, more justified and better planned) war." (Against "determined opposition," Galbraith argues, we "cannot prevail.") And who can forget Joel Stein's recent Los Angeles Times column in which he declared: "I don't support our troops. ... [W]hen you volunteer for the U.S. military ... you're willingly signing up to be a fighting tool of American imperialism." 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military is not a lone dissent from within an otherwise pro-military left; on the contrary, it speaks for the growing ranks of liberals who are uneasy with the idea of American strength, and the institutions that guarantee it.
The book is organized into ten different chapters, with each laying out one reason why Americans should not enlist. Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar activist who had a 58 percent approval rating among Democrats as of August 2005, wrote the book's introduction and one of its more obvious chapters: Don't join the military because "[y]ou may be killed." Invoking our founding fathers, Sheehan writes, "We the people, especially the moms, of America need to wake up and realize that wars are seldom fought to preserve our freedom and democracy, but rather to make rich people richer and powerful people even more powerful. We need to stop allowing the war machine to eat our children and spit out money." Those who join the military, Sheehan believes, are only enabling our "reckless and greedy leaders." If Americans stop enlisting, we can "force our government to bring our troops home from Iraq now before ... [we] invade Iran or Syria."
How does Sheehan propose America face its increasing national security threats? "We need to demand that our leaders use their words to solve problems. We need to demand that other nations use their words, too." It's a point that strikes at the heart of the book's fatal flaw--and at the fatal flaw with liberal anti-military sentiment: Sure, it'd be nice if we could "demand" that world leaders use words "to solve problems." But if the Sudanese government were so enthralled with diplomacy, would it be slowly obliterating an entire portion of its own population? And if the president of Iran valued words above all else, would he be so worried about building a nuclear arsenal?
Of all groups, liberals especially should know that protecting human rights, promoting democracy, and ending genocide are ends to strive for on a global scale. The means, of course, should not usually be military; and in a perfect world, they would never be. Moreover, if the Iraq war has proven anything, it is that we are not always capable of fulfilling our role as a completely moral force abroad. But sometimes, as in the Balkans seven years ago, as in Darfur today, we have no choice but to try. It is for those moments in particular that liberals should want to fix and strengthen the military, not tear it down. And if the authors of 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military think that effort unpatriotic, they can count me a traitor.
Rob Anderson is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.