Iraq war `strain' may depend on your gain


August 24, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

President Bush said Monday that the Iraq war is "straining the psyche of our country." What country is he talking about? The United States? If that's what the president thinks, he ought to get out of the house a little more.

Unless you're in the military, or related to someone who is, the only strain you're feeling from this war is - what? - the price of gasoline maybe? We have a great divide in this country - between the military culture and the civilian culture, and it has never been more pronounced than it is right now.

If the war has affected anyone's psyche in this country, it's the thousands of troops we've sent to Iraq and to Afghanistan - and the Marines who will be forced into active duty again, some of them after multiple tours.

Strained psyche?

Sorry, but that belongs exclusively to the troops who have served in Iraq, and more so those who have been wounded there. (We have had more than 2,600 Americans killed and more than 19,000 wounded since the war began in March 2003. An average of 7.4 soldiers have been injured for each soldier killed in combat, according to a report last week in the Indianapolis Star. And that ratio is apparently higher - by far - than at any time in U.S. military history.)

The fact is that, while public resentment grows against the war, very few Americans are mentally "strained" by it.

Personal relationships might be strained among people who disagree about the war and engage the argument.

But, for the most part, our collective psyche appears to be relatively healthy and primed for the fall television season.

Reports of casualties and sectarian violence blow in and out of the news, but, by and large, the war in Iraq has become background ho-hum in the American household. And no wonder - with so few citizens engaged in this war in a direct way.

We have an all-volunteer military doing all the heavy lifting and making all the sacrifices. In fact, those in uniform and their families are being asked to make sacrifices on top of sacrifices.

Tuesday, President Bush announced that we would stay the course in Iraq. Leaving before the job was done - whatever that is - would be a "disaster," the president said.

Of course, he did not call for more Americans to volunteer for military service.

Nor did he announce that the White House would ask Congress to reinstate the draft to bolster the military ranks for the long war on terror ahead. (Bush opposes a draft, of course. He knows that, with more American families directly engaged, his war would be even more unpopular than it is right now.)

So, we're staying the course with an all-volunteer military that numerous experts say is inadequate for the kind of ground warfare in which our forces are deployed.

The day after Bush's remarks, the Marine Corps announced that it would call back to active duty thousands of Marines in reservist status.

As the war goes on, the Marines and Army have had some difficulty reaching recruitment goals. Standards for acceptance into some branches of the U.S. military have been lowered to raise the numbers. (Last fall, to meet its goals, the Army relaxed standards on its aptitude test and tripled the number of low-scoring recruits it was willing to accept. The Army also sharply increased the number of recruits with criminal records or alcohol and drug problems.)

The point is, one part of America is fighting this war and making all the sacrifices while the rest of us go about our business, concerned but hardly strained.

We support the troops, but most of us have no interest in seeing our own families engaged directly. Our kids have better things to do in life, right?

This is one of the most challenging and uncomfortable subjects in American society - the lack of shared responsibility, across all social and economic classes, in the nation's defense .

That is what co-authors Frank Schaeffer and Kathy Roth-Douquet, military next-of-kin both of them, argue in their important book, AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service and How It Hurts Our Country.

Only certain segments of our society are being targeted by recruiters, or stepping forward to serve - and it is not, by and large, the elite, educated and wealthy classes of either left or right political leaning. The elites are mostly sitting out.

"What we have now is ridiculous," Schaeffer said yesterday. "What we need is a level playing field on which all people, from all levels of the society, are asked to serve. But I think what's happening in the military is symbolic of a wider social trend, as seen by the declining numbers of people who take part in elections, for instance. We can't continue this way; it jeopardizes the democracy. People have to participate. We all have a social responsibility; it's not all about personal preferences."

Schaeffer, whose son served in the Marines, and Roth-Douquet, whose husband is a career Marine officer, will be taking their arguments to Ivy League campuses this fall, challenging the nation's elite students to consider serving their country and to see honor in it, as earlier generations of the privileged once did.

For Schaeffer, this is a profound moral issue, put best in his book:

"When those who benefit most from living in a country contribute the least to its defense and those who benefit least are asked to pay the ultimate price, something happens to the soul of that country."

Hear Dan Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio (1090 AM) and read his blog at

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