In 2013, I volunteered to support a soldier serving in Afghanistan. I am a civilian from a family whose last contribution to any war effort involved fighting Hitler and Tojo, but the lingering ramifications of 9/11 bothered me, in particular the wide gulf between the protected and our protectors. I adopted a soldier deployed to a combat zone in a personal attempt to bridge the ongoing military-civilian divide. To understand the modern warrior, to meet one, to understand why they care and to say thank you in a tangible way. I needed to do something besides buy a guy in uniform a beer or exchange an awkward “thank you for your service” in an airport. I am compelled by an patriotic curiosity to pierce the veil and see the war on its other end from the safety of my Manhattan apartment.
Searching through soldiers’ photos on the internet, I see men with complex emotions they do not know how to deal with, uncommon abilities they’ve been taught to master, and raw egos that serve them well in combat. Men and women willing to risk their lives for something. But having looked at the other side, their side, I can’t help but notice the void staring back at me.
There aren’t many veterans amongst the men and women in Midtown Manhattan. Like our buildings, Manhattanites are overdeveloped, our skills less innate and more acquired in graduate school. I have met many a wonderful New Yorker, but my broker isn’t willing to die for the cause. And frankly, I doubt that I am either.
The men and women I know in New York close business deals, develop properties, structure settlements and otherwise arrange major affairs. They do not, however, do traditionally masculine things, like physically protect the community. My friends and neighbors are lovely people, all of them over-educated and handsomely paid. We shuffle ideas around and document them on paper. We have different professional specialties and wave flags of varying school colors, but we share an avoidance of physical and dangerous work. Very little of our makeup has to do with defending hearth and home. Protection is a thing we hire from New York Police Department down to private duty security.
When I look around, I can’t help but feel that my peers and I are missing something. Why is it unacceptable for us, or our children, to join the military or become police officers? Why has joining the military become a social unacceptable option for so many? Is service to our country now part of the class divide?
New York’s privileged and its upwardly aspiring middle class do not send their children off to war. On the rare occasion one of our own volunteers, it is staggeringly shocking. Intellectual achievement and competition is valued in privileged children of the Northeast, as is drive and, to some extent, athletic prowess. But the willingness and ability to enter into danger? Perhaps to commit a controlled act of violence in the name of Country? No. We work hard to disavow these values in our community, in our men and especially in our women.
Even violence to stop harm is seen as less than. Protection is just not something we do. We hire it out, and largely to what some consider another class. We chain up and root out these violent apparitions in our community. We relegate them safely outside of our families, our circle of friends and our neighborhoods. The ability to protect ourselves, something natural and human, has somehow become other. The protection we engage in is to keep our loved ones from partaking in the tangible danger associated with the work of actual defense. Within the span of two-and-a-half generations, we have moved from all our grandfathers serving in a great war to “I don’t think I personally know anyone in the military.”
My time spent supporting a deployed veteran showed me how great the void is between our all-volunteer military and our civilian population. Unexpectedly, it also showed me that the obstacles to bridging that divide aren’t just about learning and listening to our service members; it’s also about challenging our own modern cultural constructs.
Mary is a civilian who, since 2007, has regularly volunteered her time with various Military organizations, Veterans charities, and the Veterans Administration. She is a non-profit management consultant who focuses on program development, operations, strategic planning, and governance. She writes about the civilian-military divide.