Brian Van Reet

War and Choice
18 October 2017, 14:03
Filed under: Uncategorized

“So, why didn’t you quit?” the gentleman asked me. The occasion was a Q&A session at the end of a talk I gave upon publication of my first novel. I’d just finished telling the audience that I’d come to view the Iraq War, even while fighting in it, as misguided and wrong to the point of evil. This prompted the question, So, why didn’t you quit, which in its tone was not condescending or mean-spirited. He really wanted to know.

“Well, for one, there would’ve been significant legal consequences,” I quipped, then went on to explain that my quitting would have made that much more work, that many more combat missions outside the wire for my fellow soldiers in the platoon. Not only did I not want to appear as a coward or a shirker in their eyes, I knew that I couldn’t live with the possibility of being the one to sit out the war while a friend died in my place. Quitting never felt like a choice I could make.

Later, long after the hoopla surrounding publication died down, I reflected more deeply on the question at hand. I wondered if it would have been asked of a soldier who’d been drafted and then later expressed unease with his war. Why didn’t you evade the draft? Why didn’t you refuse to train? I doubted these questions would have come up—they feel more radical than the one I was asked—and neither the gentleman nor the literary audience he was a part of that night came off as very radical.

On the surface, it does seem like there is a clean moral distinction between volunteering to fight and being made to. Dig just below the surface, however, and these clean distinctions may get muddy. I served in Iraq on stop-loss orders—which felt compulsory enough to me at the time—but for the sake of argument, never mind the stop-loss. It’s true that on November 26, 2001, I raised my right hand of my own free will, swore an oath, and signed on the dotted line with all its attendant fine print. I was twenty years old.

Like quite a few veterans I know, I enlisted in spite of my privilege, not because I lacked it. But the other side of the coin is probably more common. In Brian Castner’s excellent book, All the Ways We Kill and Die, he tells of a friend, Matt, who enlisted in the Air Force shortly out of high school. Before the military, Matt’s last job was as a security guard at a Sara Lee factory in the Rust Belt. After enlisting, he married his girlfriend and they started a family. Then came 9-11. Then came an unending series of combat tours.

Despite the interruptions to his domestic life, Matt stayed married and had three children. He grew increasingly weary of war and dreaded each deployment more than the last. In a freak accident, he was shot on his second tour, but recovered enough to be sent overseas another four times, before he was killed in an IED blast on his sixth deployment.

Six combat tours is a distressing number for us to ask of any one person, no matter how willing they are. But by virtue of the fact that he reenlisted and went to war six times, one might conclude, as some kind of consolation, that Matt wanted to be there. It is true he felt compelled to go to war, though not because he liked it. He’d had premonitions of his own death and had tried to score a less dangerous duty station. He had seriously considered leaving the military, but with a family to support, a good, steady paycheck coming in, and excellent medical benefits for his wife and children, leaving presented its own problems and risks. In hindsight, it’s clear Matt made a choice to stay. It’s clear, from a certain point of view, that it was the wrong choice. It’s also clear that some people’s choices are much more highly circumscribed than others’ are.

Our ostensibly “all-volunteer force” allows Americans to gloss over or willfully disregard this fact of life. Nothing in recent memory has been so clarifying on this point than President Trump’s reported comment to a grieving war widow: “He [her deceased husband] knew what he signed up for.” It seems uniquely vulgar for a sitting president to distance himself in this way from the consequences of his command, but the sentiment itself is not at all unique. I’ve heard “he knew what he signed up for” from civilians and military personnel alike. I may have said it myself in a dark moment. No doubt many politicians other than Trump have thought these same words but were too tactful or shrewd to give them voice.

“He knew what he signed up for” is a hard-hearted corollary to “So, why didn’t you quit?” Perhaps people can be forgiven for, if not justified in, these attitudes. Over sixteen years of continuous conflict, the all-volunteer aspect of our military, while honorable in its intent, has served to prolong the so-called Forever War by insulating Americans individually, and the body politic as a whole, from its moral and physical stakes.

At first blush, the return of compulsory service appears unlikely. Our current military leadership is opposed to the idea of conscription, mostly because draftees are thought to be less orderly than a professional army. Elected officials tend to dislike the idea of a draft for this and other reasons, i.e., it doesn’t poll well. The draft will probably not be reinstated because it’s the morally correct and politically invigorating thing to do. A much more likely scenario is necessity: we will blunder our way into a war that’s finally big enough to require one.

If and when the draft returns, Americans will have to reconsider their notions of choice and service. Some who are effectively anti-military may find themselves in uniform. Others who are presently willing to sit on the sidelines and cheer on the troops from afar may find their glib tone changing when their own sons and daughters step onto the field, or worse, are carried off. Still others who are now apathetic may discover themselves to be strident activists at heart.

The national consensus might be, as it was during World War II, that this hypothetical future war is terrible but necessary to win. Still, draftees will be required to do the grunt work, if it’s substantial enough. During World War II the U.S. military was composed of 2/3rds draftees and 1/3 volunteers. The Greatest Generation had to be compelled. Interestingly, this ratio was almost exactly inverted during the Vietnam War, which, contrary to popular mythology, was fought mostly by volunteers.

But of course the point is that many of these same young people were exercising a highly contingent version of free will, as we all are, all the time. Most of us follow the path of least resistance more often than not. Now, as we march toward our seventeenth year of war, the drumbeat showing no signs of fading, we would do well to reflect on the choices, and lack thereof, that have led us here.

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