Sunday, September 19, 2004

A question of service

What would you expect upon joining the army?

Well, if you believe the recruitment advertisements of Australia’s armed services several years ago – a nice steady job in carpentry (rebuilding schools and hospitals in war torn parts of Asia), playing with fancy, blinking gadgets or ‘being a leader’ (don’t ask). Nowhere in the recruitment drive were a few key facts mentioned:

- There may be a war
- You may be shipped out to war
- You may need to kill
- You may die

There seemed to be the overall message that you would help your country ‘be prepared’ – but be prepared for what? A khaki and bronzed skin shortage, judging by the soldiers beaming out of the still shots.

Now, I don’t know how recruitment is run in the US or UK, but I’d guess it’s along the same lines as Australia’s government – “Join, it’ll be fun.”

Perhaps this is why it comes as such a great shock to western nations when their soldiers die in a war – it’s just not something to be expected, considering that our fittest and finest are simply busy ‘preparing themselves’ for ‘something’ in an occupational health and safety approved environment. Perhaps it’s why we have protests and why a silly woman heckled Barbara Bush last week.

Her heart wrenching story? Her son was in the army. America went to war. He was sent to Iraq. He was killed in the line of duty.

This is sad, bordering on tragic in this day and age of low infantry loss in times of conflict – but not something out of the range of reasonable expectation for a man diffusing bombs in the middle of a war zone.

Spontaneous combustion, sprouting a pair or wings or starting to convulse and speak in tongues springs to mind as terribly unexpected for a soldier in Iraq. Injury or death, sadly, no.

In order to realise exactly how preposterous this mother’s claims (that Bush killed her son) are, one only need to look to the fact that at some point in time, her son had in front of him a stack of forms to join the US army.

With full cognizance of the fact that he may be sent out to do some pretty dangerous things in the course of his military career, he signed them. If he wasn’t aware of this possibility, then I can only guess he was particularly dim, evading the issue or brought up in an isolation chamber.

I simply can’t imagine that there were boxes he could check on the application forms akin to:

- Full service.
- Service only during times of peace, thank you.

So why the outcry that soldiers are being killed in Iraq? Besides the fact that it’s an unpopular war in some quarters, I’d venture one of two guesses.

One is that these men signed up in far more peaceful times when a career in the army was just another moderately paying job with good prospects of education and furtherment, not to mention a great chance to play with some very nice toys.

The other is that most of us – growing up in the cotton wool surrounds of these paternalistic governments of ours – have forgotten what it means to take a risk AND LOSE.

If we lose our jobs we have social security, social housing, child benefits and food stamps. If we fall ill, we have ‘free’ medical care (I put the free in inverted commas because, of course, someone somewhere is paying for that medical care, often unwillingly). If we can’t afford basic education, the state steps in to foot the bill.

Where does failure land us these days? On a comfortable cushion of state supplied alms – certainly not cold, starving or dead. So where is the abject dread of failure? The knowledge that not to move forward is to die slowly and to move forward means taking chances with their inherent downside risks?

When looking at the downside risks of military service, how many recruits and their families did not take seriously the possibility of death? Certainly the chances of misfortune are greater in service than in other careers – even during training, let alone in a hostile country. I really wonder if the idea of the government as protective and coddling guardian extended in these people’s mind’s to the realm of war. “Nothing bad will happen – ‘they’ just wouldn’t let it happen!”

Nevertheless, mistaken or not, adults signed up to be soldiers.

I remember seeing Michael Moore being interviewed during the Democractic convention. He seemed to revel in the idea that he had caught his interviewer out by asking him whether he would send his own child to Iraq. The interviewer, of course, stated that this would be solely the child’s decision. Michael would take none of it and asked the same question again and again, thinking he had caught the interviewer out at some guilty admission.

Michael is living in the wrong decade, if not the wrong century. People willingly sign themselves up for military service in America these days. Conscription is (thankfully) a thing of the past and children are no longer chattels only doing their parent’s bidding.

In the same way that Michael couldn’t see that the interviewer’s children would have to make the decision to undertake military service for themselves, the protesting mother couldn’t see that her son undertook the decision for himself. She sees her son as merely a man going about his business at work – suddenly being shipped out to a dangerous foreign country for no fathomable reason.

Bush isn’t a murderer – he is a President in a political system allowing him to wield the power of an army at will. The army is made of voluntary recruits who have signed the daily determination of lives away for a certain period of time to their military leaders and to the government. Bush isn’t choosing random strangers off the street to go into Iraq and diffuse bombs, he is using soldiers who have pledged their allegiance and service to him. If they didn’t take that pledge seriously enough at the outset, they have made a serious error of judgment.

Signing up for the army is a gamble. It’s possible to serve well, with distinction, to make a career, to rise in rank – it’s also possible to lose at the gamble and pay the highest price a human being can. I’d say that one of the few things that make the gamble worthwhile is to respect your government and your leaders so that you take the risk for a cause that you believe in. It’s no wonder then, given the leaders we have, that I won’t be joining the army any time soon.


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