Wars and Public Life
Wars no longer involve the public as they had in every war since the Continental Congress raised forces to win independence. Even the Vietnam War, oversimplified as a poor man's war, drew from the middle- and upper-middle classes as not every young man from those strata availed himself of a deferment. Pride in military service was still pervasive at the outset of that war, though it became one of its unenumerated and unmourned casualties.
Today, soldiers are drawn from comparatively narrow social strata. They serve in the military, fight their nation's wars, and suffer the casualties. Enlistments went up following the September 11th attacks and even several offspring of the well-to-do took the oath, but most people confined their expressions of patriotism to admiring the nation's might and calling for retribution. For the bulk of the country there is neither cost nor involvement. A bumper sticker or a silent moment during the news suffices as a show of support for the troops. Only graying and aged veterans question the justness of the casualties falling so heavily on narrow social strata.
The Iraq War led to spirited but unfocused protest rallies. Most were more like colorful folk festivals than concerted political action. The putative issue at hand was intermixed with and obscured by numerous unrelated causes. Demonstrations sought to recreate the antiwar movement of the sixties a time of romantic and mythic meaning to the gathered. Opposition had little effect on the prosecution of the war or the president's reelection.
Antiwar activists diligently avoid criticism of the military, at least in public. This too is a legacy of the old antiwar movement, which unfairly and boorishly savaged anyone in uniform from a four-star general in the Pentagon to a corporal just back from the A Shau. This aspect of the antiwar movement later gave rise to a sense of guilt that strengthened respect for military service.
Few Americans today openly criticize the military, regardless of its judgment or conduct. That would be deemed unpatriotic and threaten to revisit the divisiveness of the sixties. Few Americans today have any substantive acquaintance with military matters and cannot speak from experience or with insight, only with great passion most of which is short-lived.
©2011 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a veteran of the Vietnam War and the author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam.