At a recent writing conference in Manhattan, I lunched with a group of other attendees. They were mostly newly retired women; savvy, professionally accomplished New Yorkers now looking to focus on the book they’d always dreamed of writing. We started talking about our work, and I told the women that my writing centers on the Global War on Terror, with a specific focus on the impact the war has had on the homefront to which our warriors return.
The reactions were varied and political. One comment in particular grabbed my attention. I’ve heard it said before in more nuanced ways, but this sixty-something Upper East Sider really put it all out there: “They do it for the shoes. They’ve never owned anything in their life. It’s their only option. The government manipulates all of these boys into going into the Army for shoes and clothing. No one would do it if their circumstances didn’t force them to.”
Now, I’m the kind of person who would do just about anything for a new pair of Giuseppe Zanottis, but I wouldn’t enlist for them, and certainly not in the midst of an endless war. I’ve volunteered with military and veteran organizations, and I have a number of friends who are combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even with their varied backgrounds and experiences in and out of the service, I’ve yet to hear anyone say that they joined the military for a free pair of shoes. Their decisions to enlist came from a sense of a calling to the work, a persistent curiosity about whether or not they could live up to the challenge.
I replied: “You have a very firm opinion about all of this. You must know a lot of veterans.”
I was not surprised when she told me: “No, but everyone was suckered into the Vietnam War. War is…” What followed was a long story of her detailed knowledge of war as directly experienced from newspaper headlines and more assumptions. To be clear, she was a blowhard, but she genuinely didn’t want to have to send our country’s young men and women off to war.
I hear this often from folks of a certain age and privilege. Their perception of war is heavily colored by their fear of the draft, and can often be boiled down to four firm conclusions: 1) All war is wrong; 2) All war is forced upon an unwilling populace by extreme governments; 3) Only citizens who aren’t sophisticated enough to get out of it, engage in it; 4) Engaging in combat defies every aspect of human nature.
This woman was very earnest in her opinion, one that obviously came from little first-hand knowledge and a great deal of anxiety. She was angry at the thought of – in her words – “another poor boy getting involved in some government plot” for want of a good pair of shoes. But how does this opinion – one held by many – translate into the reality of today’s generation of veterans and active duty military that enlisted as part of an all-volunteer military. How do we explain peoples’ desire to join the military to those who fail to acknowledge the genuine desire to voluntarily enlist?
I think the concerns and emotions underlying this woman’s perspective are worth discussing: Can we eliminate the necessity of war? Can we ensure that only the willing enter the military, especially combat?
But along with these questions, we as a community have to acknowledge that people are not only willing to join the military, but are often inspired to enlist. For many, enlistment comes from a place of interest, purpose, patriotism, family legacy, and a desire to test oneself. The military provides numerous professional opportunities. Not everyone enlisted ends up a payload specialist prepping bombs for some Middle Eastern village; the military also employs a large number of chefs, meteorologists, and piccolo players.
How do we explain the desire of those willing to defend this country to those who are more than happy to let others do the work?
We can start by listening beyond our own assumptions; listening to ideas that make us uncomfortable and to experiences well beyond our own, and then seeking out information that shapes a more informed opinion. This seems difficult today, a time when you can readily seek out support for your own opinion with one quick internet search. This woman was acerbic in the presentation of her ideas, but they came from a place of concern. If she were willing to listen to those who serve, she would hear stories about the military that have more to do with purpose and employment than shoes and deception. If folks like her started to listen, we could advance the ball.