Hell no more

Russell Baker

September 25, 1990|By Russell Baker

ONE OF THE breakfast shows used television magic the other day to reunite an Army mother in Saudi Arabia for a few minutes with her husband and small son back home in North Carolina.

Mother stood in the desert and smiled comfortably, and back home with Father their child said, "I love you, Mom," with such sincere affection that it must have brought many a sentimental parent to the edge of tears.

This is a military man's dream of what television could be if only it would quit sniping and get on the team: positive and heart-warming. There is a lot of such television these days: shots of great-looking young soldiers, male and female, standing in the desert, smiling, identifying themselves, saying hello to parents, lovers and pals back home.

Arabian sun and sand suggest happy images of summer, beaches, vacations, and though we know they are not out there to picnic, how can we not smile when we see how great they look, how cheerful, how young and competent?

The TV reunion of mother and her loved ones back home produced a dialogue that is common on television nowadays. Yes, said the mother, it was hard being parted from her family, but the military was her job, and it was the kind of job in which such separations were inescapable.

Her husband agreed. No, he didn't object to staying behind to keep the home fires burning if that was what it took to support his wife in a job she liked.

What an astounding change in American life. War, which used to be hell, is now a job. And an equal-opportunity employer to boot.

For a parallel you have to go back to the Civil War when men called to duty in the Union Army could get out of it by paying other men (not women, though) to take their places. There was a ready supply of men then willing to go to war for the money.

There always has been, but in the United States the supply has never been so ample that we could fight a major war, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam, for instance without drafting citizens who would have preferred to stay home.

Americans usually liked it this way. They had the ancient democratic republic's natural distaste for militarized states like imperial Rome and Bismarck's Germany, and later Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy.

Their view was formed by history, whose lesson was plain: Militarized states tended to destroy democracy, and for a good military reason to wit, you can't run a successful war by majority vote.

Vietnam proved it again. Vietnam was the military's ultimate governmental nightmare because, for one thing, popular war hatred began to destroy the old citizen's draft, so essential to success in big wars.

Then when Washington decided the draft was a major cause of anti-war passion, the draft was killed and the military went professional.

Which is where we are today. Without the draft, Americans had to regard the military as a desirable outfit to join, rather as people used to regard IBM and the telephone company as swell outfits to work for.

This meant making the pay competitive, providing good fringe benefits, emphasizing dandy career opportunities. Expensive advertising campaigns depicted young men and women mastering the tricky technology necessary to succeeding in civilian America after they took the sweet early retirement.

For obvious reasons, there were no TV commercials illustrating that the military's job might also include the necessity to kill and risk being killed or mutilated.

Well, yes, the Marines did have that commercial with the young man in snazzy full dress uniform doing something ominously ritualistic with a sword, but mostly the ads were all promise undiluted by warnings from the surgeon general.

The result is this huge professional military in the Middle East who talk about being there as an inescapable part of a pretty good job. They make the Pentagon sound like one of those aggressive private corporations that tirelessly shift their personnel from city to city to learn the corporate structure and test whether they have the mettle for vice presidencies.

It's not surprising that women should want a chance to succeed in the military business just as they want equal opportunities to succeed in other desirable and highly respected enterprises. If it is only a job opportunity, are they not entitled?

It is not a job opportunity, however, so much as a nasty obligation to do and suffer dreadful things. When we had the draft, we weren't so easily fooled about that.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.