War as a Profession of Sacrifice


January 17, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — War would affect the lives of all who write and read such articles as this -- but not affect us much. We are spectators.

Others will suffer, including a great many who can't read and do not know what this conflict is all about, except to believe in some unclear way that their society is at risk and must be defended. An Iraqi defends Iraq, Islam, the Arabs, his people; he does not fight for Saddam Hussein. He may despise him.

Our people are not fighting for George Bush but for our side. Our leaders have placed a number of large principles at stake and say that these are worth fighting for. The most enthusiastic about going to war prove once again to be the mind-workers rather than the military professionals -- politicians, officials, editorial-writers. Newspaper columnists seem often the most bloodthirsty of all, for reasons I don't really understand. Possibly we deal so obsessively with words that we come to think words are all that words are about.

A good deal is being made of the fact that there are proportionately more than twice the number of black men in the infantry in the Persian Gulf than in the American population as a whole. The same thing, or worse, is true for poor whites, as it was in Vietnam. Surely this can be no surprise. The infantry is the unskilled labor of war, and is recruited from the poor.

It is commented upon as well that no high official in the administration has a son or daughter in service in Saudi Arabia. President Bush faltered when asked if the war would be worth the life of his son. Only two people in Congress have sons serving in the gulf.

Mr. Bush served more than honorably in a popular war, but his Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, managed to spend nine years in college and graduate school during the Vietnam War, which was unpopular, and never served at all. Everyone knows about Dan Quayle, who dodged danger by serving -- if that is the word -- in a hometown National Guard unit during the Vietnam War, and in a noncombat element of the Guard at that.

But none of this is unusual either. Wars always have been fought by the poor because the privileged have better things to do with their lives, like running the governments that go to war, or telling governments how to do it from the safety of the editorial page or the university faculty or policy institute.

Ninety-five percent of the people serving in American military units in the gulf say that they signed up for a job or training or education. Many are unhappy at what has turned out to be part of the contract they signed -- which says something about the sense of invulnerability which has permeated American life during the past decade.

The other 5 percent is a group that has always interested this writer, since I was a child living outside wartime Fort Benning. What an extraordinary thing it really is to be a professional soldier! Yet it is a life that has always fascinated and drawn men, including the best of men. It is, the great Alfred de Vigny has said, a form of secular monasticism, offering isolation, regularity, simplicity -- and a professional confrontation with the ultimate.

Professional soldiers do not often put it that way (although some do; there are more reflective people in the noncommissioned as well as the commissioned ranks than you may think). It is a vocation, for those who understand what they have chosen -- a special calling setting them apart from other men. Their calling is to deal intimately and professionally with the serious matter of death, while lesser men occupy themselves with lesser matters -- money-making, politics, words.

It is a vocation of sacrifice. ''Sacrifice of self must needs be the most noble thing in the world since it assumes such beauty of form in simple men who, more often than not, have no idea of their own worth or of the meaning of their lives.'' That is Vigny, the officer, speaking.

I suppose that today there are fewer American soldiers who think in such terms than there were in the past, when such sentiments came naturally to Robert E. Lee (who said ''It is well that war is so terrible -- we would grow too fond of it''), or to the two MacArthurs, or the austere George Marshall.

The intellectual climate of soldiering, as of the nation, has changed, and the American services have become heavily bureaucratized and civilianized. Armies once emphasized the singularity of military life through uniforms and ritual. James Jones, writing of enlisted life in the old Hawaiian Division, is very good on this (in ''From Here to Eternity'' above all).

The British and French armies still do it. The peculiar glamour of the Foreign Legion is linked to the fact that its members are not asked to be loyal to France, but to the Legion itself.

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