Society and today’s military

Next Monday, Wilton veterans will lead the Memorial Day parade with pride and camaraderie, thus preserving the legacy of courageous, selfless service shared with American veterans who have gone before them. Many marchers are in their mid-60s, others older, and fewer of them every year. It is important they be regarded not as senior citizens in faded uniforms, but as a symbol of America’s armed forces at large and its vital connection to our society.

Following World War II, when families had at least one member in uniform, political and journalistic references were supportive and admiring. Americans were familiar enough with the military to respect it, while aware of its shortcomings. Military service was still considered to be a rite of passage for young Americans — even Elvis.

Today, the military is exotic territory for many. America has been at war for 14 years, but the public has not. More Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist to serve their country. With the exception of Nicholas Madaras and a few contemporaries, more than two generations have come of age in Wilton since the last draftee was inducted and few have volunteered. The difference between Americans who knew their military, and the modern America that gazes admiringly but can’t connect with them, appeared in popular culture during the Vietnam war. Whereas Ernie Pyle described the bravery of the troops in World War II, American media a generation later reveled in denouncing our military until the average grunt in Vietnam felt little but despair. A war they had won by almost any measure was lost.

Deployed soldiers remark that America doesn’t care how they are doing. With a complacent public, having no direct interest in what is happening in the military economically, productively, and tactically, strategic and institutional problems fester. Historian Andrew Bacevich wrote, “A people untouched by war are far less likely to care about it. Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.” Today’s civilian leadership has scant military experience and even less courage to use it properly. Fewer citizens believe that our “leaders” are upholding their duty to protect them, and yet we have allowed them to defund and demoralize the military without complaint.

While military members acutely feel the burdens placed on them and the inattention to their lives, limbs, and lost opportunities, they take pride in withstanding hardships that would break their contemporaries. This is the warrior ethos — a bond between members comprised of honor, duty, courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. Warrior ethos depends on the connection of the military to society because servicemen and women need to see themselves as part of a community sustaining itself through “sacred trust” and a covenant that binds the military to one another and to the society they serve.

In recent years, respect for many institutions plummeted while confidence in the military shot up after 9/11 and has stayed high. The public expresses a “great deal” of confidence in the military while most lack confidence in the nation’s medical system and in Congress. Given that, one would think young Americans would show more interest in serving their country. Those enticed by the politician’s siren song of a “free” college education could earn it with a stint in the military. Not only does it enhance one’s commercial value in civilian life but also the satisfaction of rising above self and meeting the challenge is something a veteran never regrets.

We are today fighting enemies using a perverted interpretation of religion to incite violence. Their expanding global reach is a catastrophe of colossal scale. The naiveté of the administration has laid the groundwork for future conflicts that few can contemplate and it will fall on the shoulders of American servicemen to stop the threat to all of us. Wilton’s children, currently in school, will eventually be called upon and will likely bear the brunt. That is why our military must preserve its warrior ethos while becoming more connected to the public, in whose name they fight.

Please follow the parade to Hillside Cemetery in respect for those who have fallen on our behalf. Memorial Day hot dogs and club openings can wait for a while.