How Cheap Is Your Manhood?
We talked of war. Johnson: "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea."
— Life of Johnson, April 10, 1778
Johnson's apothegm has never been truer. I recently passed a casual remark in the on-line version of this magazine to the effect that many a middle-aged American, watching the impressive achievements of our warriors in Iraq, must be quietly wondering whether perhaps, instead of going from high school to college to grad school to a business career, he might not have gained something by service with the military. Suddenly my e-mail in-box was overflowing (the equivalent of "the switchboard lit up" in the world of TV and radio commentary). Yes, large numbers of middle-aged American men — and not a few women, too — have indeed been impressed by those confident, personable young soldiers on their TV screens. They have perhaps been especially impressed by the staff people at CENTCOM briefings, people like Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks: self-assured yet modest, well-spoken and respectful even to the more obnoxious kind of journalist, crisply and spotlessly turned out. And yes, many a lawyer, accountant and CEO is quietly wondering why he never even thought of taking up a military career.
Well, why didn't he? We all know the answer. Across large segments of American society, things military have been seriously unfashionable for thirty years. The shadow of Vietnam has been awfully long, and the protesters of the 1960s went on to positions of power and influence in our culture. Recall the standard Hollywood portrayal of the military man this past 30 years: the twitching, anal-retentive, psychopathic U.S.M.C. neighbor in the move American Beauty was a recent manifestation. An entire generation of Americans has been brought up with that stereotype.
This hostile mentality has not been evenly spread across all classes and regions. Much of red-state America has never lost its affection for the armed services. This is particularly true of the South, which still supplies a disproportionate number of military personnel — 42 per cent of all recruits in the year ending Sept. 30, 2000. And as persistently as the Warrior South maintains its affection, our cognitive elites preserve their animosity. Just as the memory of Vietnam began to recede, leftist intellectuals found a new rationale for their (to borrow a verb from one of the more egregious specimens) "loathing" of the military in the flap over discrimination against homosexuals in the services. This became a reason to maintain the late-1960s exclusions of ROTC from elite university campuses. Only four of the eight Ivy League colleges currently have on-campus ROTC activities. Students at the other four can participate off-campus, but the "off" is sometimes discouragingly far. A Yale student has to drive 75 miles to the University of Connecticut for ROTC.
It is perhaps too much to hope that the new respect for the military among the readers of National Review Online will be reflected in the academy any time soon, but the response of those readers is encouraging none the less. Some interesting questions arise, though. Why, for example, did this surge of "warrior envy" not happen after the first Gulf War back in 1991? The main reason was probably the ambiguous result of that war. Though in strict logic the war aim — expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait — was attained, few felt that Operation Desert Storm had been a clear-cut victory. Even for those of us who exulted in the liberation of Kuwait, the exultation turned bitter in our mouths when we saw the betrayal of the freedom fighters in southern Iraq after the armistice.
And of course there was 9/11. Watching TV the other evening, my mind slack and at ease ("at ease"!) from a day of mental labor, I saw some footage of a tall Iraqi office building going up in flames. My first thought was: Good! They did it to ours, now we're doing it to theirs. That response does not, of course, stand up to a moment's logical scrutiny; but if it is the instinctive reaction of one as good-natured (ask anybody) as myself, I am willing to bet it is rather widespread among my fellow citizens. America has a score to settle, which was not the case in 1991. Those who are doing the settling, or acting to prevent the repetition of 9/11-type horrors, naturally excite our admiration and gratitude.
To the degree that warrior envy is a species of regret for misspent youth, there is, pending the invention of a Time Machine, no real cure. If, however, you want to make some amends for your former neglect of the military aspect of citizenship, there are a number of things you can do. In the first place, you may still be able to enlist. The reserves and National Guard accept new enlistees and officers in their mid thirties. One of my e-mailers joined the Navy Reserve as a Petty Officer 2nd Class at age 34, and after 9/11 was mobilized for 12 months of active duty in the Far East. He reports: "It was a long year for my wife and daughters, but I believe the sacrifice was meaningful and important."
Even beyond the mid thirties there are options for military service. In addition to the Army National Guard, Air National Guard, and Naval Militia, my own state has a fourth division of its military forces: the New York Guard, which accepts recruits "in reasonably good health" of any age over 18. National Review Online's Dave Konig joined the New York Guard after 9/11 and wrote of his experiences in this magazine ("The Itch to Serve," July 1, 2002). Other states have similar arrangements. Fans of the Tenth Amendment may note that our State Guard reports only to the Adjutant General and Governor of the state, who have no authority to federalize it. They may, of course, instruct it to assist federal forces, but they cannot send it outside the state. It is thus the most purely state-run of all militia units.
If your health excludes you from service in your state militia, all is not lost. You can pay your respects by joining one of the re-enactment societies that flourish all over the country. My own township is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year, and we have enjoyed much entertainment and instruction from the local corps of Revolutionary War re-enactors. If even that is beyond your scope, the graves of our veterans need constant attention. Many military graves are not decorated annually, as they should be, for want of manpower. A local American Legion or VFW post will have instructions on how to volunteer for these tasks, which can be carried out by people of any age or physical condition.
And in lieu of anything else, there is a simple but vitally important service that all of us with children or grandchildren can perform without even stirring from our armchairs. We can teach the little ones to honor and respect our nation's military, to understand that the obligations of free citizens go beyond just voting and paying taxes, and to be ready, when duty calls, to take up arms in defense of our freedoms — not grudgingly, with a sigh of resignation, but cheerfully, with spirit and pride, like Americans!