Friday, January 18, 2019

Conscription and Some Relatives

Back when I was in the military, thus well before 1973, military conscription was still in force. Most of the men I served with were therefore draftees. Tending to the contrarian, I had enlisted voluntarily and was therefore considered to be Regular Army. I signed up for four years; the Draft kept people for just under two. In addition I served another extra year so that we (Brigitte and I) could organize our transition from Germany to the U.S. more efficiently. We’d met in Germany and married there.

One of the largely overlooked benefits of the Draft was that large numbers of at least the male population actually experienced most aspects of military work. That experience taught a person that military life and work was, most of the time, about as far removed from heroism as is construction, farming, factory work, or professional sports. And what with the public fully aware of the nature of this lifestyle (let me call it that, tongue in cheek) the tendency to view soldiers as heroes was not continuously on display back then; now it is on display far too much. But that sort of talk or oration has its own benefit too. When people glorify “our heroes,” we  may be sure of two things. First, they may never have served themselves (indeed they had often heroically schemed to avoid service) and, second, they often praise our heroes to cover themselves with borrowed (if sometimes fake) glory—not because they believe a word of what they say.
These thoughts arose as I put away one of my 2018 calendars named “America the Beautiful.” Its thematic, built of photographs of statues (half the months) and landscapes (the other half), is “patriotic.” In effect, it is similar to the glorification of the ordinary GI, but at a larger scale. To be sure, the landscapes show that the American land is beautiful—but so is land across the globe. As for heroics and military events, all countries have the equivalents in their history. Using such images to point at “beauty” has a flavor of self-praise; it’s innocent in the calendar, but it's a way of bending from the hard truth of things.

It only takes small steps from these instances (and flag-worship too) to White Supremacy, American Exceptionalism, and other dangerous forms of tribalism. To praise the soldiers, let’s praise service. To praise the country, let’s praise its mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and plains. Patriotism? Let’s pay our taxes. The higher achievements of humanity are never mere collectives you can put on— like fatigues.

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