My first run-in with the military didn’t go very well.
In high school, I attended peace rallies and drove a car garnished with anti-war bumper stickers. When I became Opinions Editor of the school newspaper, I used the opportunity to launch a withering broadside against the war in Iraq. Pulling no punches, I compared U.S. actions in Iraq to the worst atrocities of World War II. A local recruiter was furious enough to publicly confront me, and the ensuing dust-up gained me new notoriety in my deeply conservative community.
And then, as several of my classmates made their way to boot camp, I went to the Ivy League.
When I arrived at Penn, I found myself part of a not-so-silent majority. Most of us opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even while paying lip service to the bravery of our military, we made no real effort to distinguish bad civil decision making from the organization duty-sworn to make these decisions a reality. The military remained alien and distant. Its young soldiers might as well have lived on another planet.
What I experienced is part of the “service gap,” a phenomenon which has seen much of military service relegated to the other, less-fortunate half of American society. According to authors Frank Schaeffer and Kathy Roth-Douquet, “almost half of the graduating classes of Princeton and Harvard [Universities] entered the service for a tour of duty in the 1950s. Today, less than 1 percent does.”
The service gap entails more than a decrease in young Ivy League cadets. It is also responsible for a decreased appreciation of the challenges faced by U.S. combatants and a decreased nation-wide understanding of military affairs. Where two-thirds of Congress had military experience during Vietnam, barely one-third does today. And as our armed forces become estranged from mainstream society, their members become increasingly marginalized.
There is no single cause for this service gap. Journalist Thomas Ricks identifies factors like the institution of an all-volunteer force, the fragmentation of American society and the end of the Cold War. For the Ivy League in particular, the specter of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” bears much responsibility. Yet none of these facts justify the apathy and occasional hostility which today’s “best and brightest” demonstrate toward today’s men and women in uniform.
For me, the service gap became personal last summer when I roomed with a 27-year-old former-enlisted Marine. He had seen four tours of duty — including two in Iraq — before continuing school. Yet my apprehension quickly gave way. He wasn’t a Hollywood jarhead, and he hadn’t joined the service because he was on board with any neoconservative agenda. Instead, he was an ordinary student who had done extraordinary things. He was immensely proud of his service, and he wished more college kids would feel the same way.
Even as elite universities gravitate further from the military, this generation of young soldiers has never been more visible. Via Facebook, I’ve seen acquaintances dread advanced training or the next day’s physical training the same way I’ve dreaded a new semester or a really tough test. This kind of connection should remind us that many soldiers — far from faceless warriors — are our age or younger, with many of our same worries and concerns. Their challenges may be different from our own, but they as people are not.
Nestled in the Penn bubble, there is a tendency to dismiss anything outside the scope of politics, science, literature and finance. We know a lot about the strategic hopscotch that starts wars, but we know less and less about the college-aged kids we send to fight them.
We needn’t serve in order to appreciate those who do. Much of the service gap stems from ignorance — we can fix this, and we should.
Emerson Brooking is a College senior from Turnerville, Ga. and a member of the Undergraduate Assembly. His e-mail address is brooking@theDP.com. Southern Comfort appears on alternate Tuesdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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