Feeling Like an American

by Carl W. Hunt

The January-February, 2015 issue of the Atlantic Magazine recently published a cover piece titled “The Tragedy of the American Military” by James Fallows. I’ve known Jim since 2007 and consider him a friend. His article this month shows Jim to be a friend to America as well, as did the writings of the accompanying pieces “Gun Trouble” by Major General Robert H. Scales (US Army, ret.) and “How I learned to Love the Draft” by Joseph Epstein. All three were published in the magazine as a “block” of related stories.

These three articles stirred me to write a bit about my own experiences with our nation’s military, particularly my service, the United States Army, and how it is related to Reconnecting to the American Promise. [1]

In this post, I’ll talk about the military draft, its effects on my life, and introduce a couple of thoughts from Jim’s very fine piece on the state of the United States military and what he describes as the “Chickenhawk” nation that “supports” our military. Since mine are mostly personal experiences, they don’t always agree with the articles, but all three of these pieces are very important reading for the entire nation.

Yes, I was drafted. My start-and-stop (and start-and-stop, and start-and-stop) military career began September 18th, 1972, a day I still “celebrate” every year…I celebrate it as a milestone date that set the course of my life. [2]

I reported to the draft station early that September morning in downtown Houston, was sworn in and on the bus to Fort Polk, Louisiana by mid-afternoon. On the bus with me were some 40 or so other young men, some of whom would become my new “Army buddies.”

To this cohort at the reception station at Fort Polk were added other young men from Dallas, New Orleans and many other towns in between. They represented a variety of vocations including carpenters, plumbers, an accountant and even a laid-off school teacher. All of the races in America were represented, although most in my basic combat training unit were white. I was drafted off of the Houston Police Department having received a deferment to complete my probationary period to become a fully qualified radio patrolman, so even though I was only 19, I may have had a slight advantage on the organizational side.

The variety of young men with whom I “matriculated” through basic training at Fort Polk far exceeded the diversity of any group I’d met in Houston…it was a true American “melting pot.” My new buddies “came from all social and economic classes” as Joseph Epstein noted in his Atlantic article. Even though I was familiar with self-discipline and unit cohesion from my training with the Houston Police Academy (at which probably half were Vietnam War vets), many of my fellow new soldiers were learning about it for the first time.

Those early Army experiences made almost all of us teammates and taught us about collaboration and cooperation. For those that did not learn those lessons well enough, the Army had ways to deal with them…it involved washing a lot dishes, scrubbing a lot of garbage cans and a whole lot of pushups. By the end of Basic and Advanced Individual Training, we all learned about service above self and understood more about what it meant to be an American. As Joseph Epstein wrote in his “Draft” article, “I have US Flag over US Backgroundnever felt more American than when I was in the Army.” Since the Vietnam War Armistice was signed during this time, I and many of my fellow draftees went to South Korea and learned to appreciate being an American even more.

My brother Chuck and I have written about service to our nation in other posts and there are surely many ways to serve America, including outside the military and law enforcement and a host of first responder organizations. What the draft did for me, and many others, however, was to focus our appreciation for being part of something bigger than ourselves even to the point of representing our great nation overseas. I appreciated Joseph Epstein’s perspectives and his story brought back some great memories. [3] (I’ve long since put most of the “bad” memories out of mind.)

I also truly appreciate those who choose to teach our nation’s children and adults who go on past high school: theirs is indeed a great service. I also respect those who chose not to serve through government as many of these Americans strengthen our economy and our culture and perhaps most importantly, can serve by strengthening the debate about how we use our military. That’s where Jim’s fine article comes in.

What Jim’s (and Joseph Epstein’s) article did for me was to remind me how distanced too many Americans have gotten from the principles of service for something bigger than themselves. I’ll close with a couple of important thoughts from the “Tragedy of the American Military” article and ask you to assess for yourself if these observations affect how Americans have been disconnected from our destiny as a great nation.

Jim claims our nation has become a “Chickenhawk Nation” for “the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going.” If this is correct, and Jim presents strong evidence to make his case, it’s no wonder the disconnect from the American Promise has grown in the last decade or so of “The Long War.” Both our military and our population at large must have at some point questioned how our political leadership makes decisions about the use of the military and what outcomes it seeks. But these questions have still not really been addressed adequately, and it has greatly cost our nation in lives and treasure. I believe the disconnect surfaces because we don’t persistently and sufficiently challenge our leadership with those important questions, and our electoral process isn’t sufficiently challenging anymore either. Correcting these shortcomings is how all of us can better serve America.

The other significant point I’ll make in this post is related: Jim calls it the “Chickenhawk Economy.” He notes how the economic environment of America since the beginning of the “Long War” has increasingly been dominated by congressional budgeting decisions on modernizing weapons platforms based on job creation in their districts or political power aggregation rather than the true needs of the military. General Scales’ article supports this narrative, as well. This also speaks to the role that Congress and the Administration have had in further disconnecting Americans from their nation and what our Founders intended, the real theme behind this entire blog. [4]

If more of us want to experience “Feeling Like an American” it’s way past time to step up and serve our nation, both in and out of uniform, by challenging the Chickenhawk spiral we’re experiencing as this new year kicks off. It’s time for all of us to feel like an American and Reconnect to the American Promise.

Originally posted on 1/12/2015.

Notes

[1] The main article by Jim and the “Draft” article by Joseph Epstein spoke most intimately to me. General Scales’ piece was mostly about the troubles the military has had finding a reliable rifle for combat and how frequently the M-16 malfunctioned. It’s easily possible to generalize that narrative to the increasingly complex weapons systems we as a nation buy, as Jim Fallows does with his recounting of the F35 story in the article, but that’s beyond this current blog post.

[2] I left active duty after 3 ½ years, used the GI Bill to get an education, went back in on a direct commission, got out again (remaining in in the Reserves), and finally “permanently” went back on active duty to complete a total of 30 years of active and reserve service. I finally retired from the Army in 2006. It’s still tough deciding what it is I want to do when I grow up!

[3] My greatest memories were in meeting my wife and having our son grow up as the child of a member of the military. The role and support of family in the military is the absolute core strength of our nation.

[4] I strongly encourage our readers to review Jim’s article and make the comparisons for themselves.

3 thoughts on “Feeling Like an American

  1. Enjoyed your commentary. Another aspect of the “Chickhawk Nation” is labeling our soldiers and sailors as “Warriors”. As such they are paid for their service and accept the consequences so the nation uses them as just another tool; a ridiculous concept. We also promote the idea that great advances in artificial limbs and exoskeleton technology make loss of limbs an inconvenience. As I write this I hear from the television the request to support “Wounded Warriors” with a $19/month contribution. There is no way this should be necessary if the nation was truly supporting the those in the military.

    • As someone who was trained to be what today’s society calls “Warriors” Richard, I understand your point but do beg to differ that it’s a “ridiculous concept” as applied today. Our military force is used today in roughly the same way it always has been: to protect what our civilian policy makers (conceptually, the elected and appointed representatives of the people of America) decide is important to protect. It is possible that our military has become “just another tool” but again that’s not all that different than the manner in which the military has served as instruments of power throughout our history. They are part of the quiver we’ve traditionally called the DIME: Diplomacy, Information, Military and Economic (readers can find a detailed description of what that means in documents such as US Special Operations Command’s “Special Operations Forces Interagency Counterterrorism Reference Manual” of 2013 (http://www.soc.mil/528th/PDFs/2013SOFIACTRefManual_Final.pdf) (see for example, page 1-2). That said, no one likes to be thought of as “just another tool” and your comment may be closer to the mark than America should find comfortable.

      As far as your thoughts on wounds and medical advances, they are most assuredly more than “an inconvenience” as you point out: they are a constant reminder of what our elected policy makers chose to “protect” through the use of our military. The authors of this blog will not debate whether our elected officials chose wisely or not, but you and all our readers certainly may – we thank you for that debate.

      Finally, regarding the television solicitation of contributions to care for our wounded warriors, I’ll choose to grant that it is a meaningful cause conducted by a well-meaning charitable foundation, but completely agree with you that it should absolutely not be necessary in America.

      Thank you for your very thoughtful comments, Richard. It’s always great to post your insights in this blog!

      – Carl

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