Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Two Bracelets

Anyone who saw the first presidential debate, and many (including me) who didn’t, is familiar with the two candidates’ exchange of views over the Iraq war through reference to bracelets they wore that came from the mothers of soldiers who died in Iraq. The most notorious moment in this exchange occurred when Sen. Obama, who looked like he was ready to pounce, nonetheless appeared to momentarily forget the name of the soldier and the mother who were so much in his thoughts.

But to me the most interesting thing about this exchange is the way it indicates the growing problem of the role of a voluntary military at a time of seemingly endless and costly war. The problem, in short, is that the military becomes just another undecided pressure group whose sacrifices must, in the jargon, be spun by ambitious politicians. To the anti-war groups, the deaths of soldiers must be portrayed in a way that increases support for ending the war, and to those who support the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns the very same deaths must be used to persuade the Americans to support victory.

We live in an odd time. As a cynic put it recently, the American military is at war, but America is at the mall. We have seldom had such a great disconnect between what military people go through and what happens to civilians during a typical day. During World War II the military did the dying as usual but the lives of civilian Americans were tightly woven into the war effort in every respect. That is clearly not the case now, as any stroll down an American city street during a busy workday, chock full as it is of people doing perfectly ordinary and pleasant things with little thought given to the geopolitical decisions their government has made on their behalf. That the military would be politicized now was perhaps inevitable, and I think this is a trend that will get worse. We will soon enough see politicians explicitly charging the other politicians, who of course are the bad guys we all must fear, with actually betraying the military. And where does this lead?

The military as far as I know takes its oath, which requires them to defend the Constitution rather than a particular man, very seriously. But how long could it go on like this – the military at war, the people not, and politicians increasingly using the fate of the military to scour up votes? Down this road lies the path to the increasing militarization of our domestic politics. If the military is asked to support one side or another, eventually it will. Perhaps it is inevitable with an all-volunteer force and the United States playing, depending on your predilections, global cap or imperial master. But either way, there are precedents, some of them none too reassuring.



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