The AWOL upper class

By Ray Starmann

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I had the rare privilege to grow up in a suburb of stately lawns, with large, brick houses built by real world Gatsby’s. It was a town of good, solid Episcopalians; a place where parents groomed their children at Country Day for an eventual spot at Choate or Andover; a place of clay courts and manicured greens.

Needless to say, I was bored to death as a kid. Like Phil Caputo, the author of A Rumor of War, I longed for adventure, world travel and to “see the elephant.” When I finally had my wish fulfilled in the winter of 1991, I was often bombarded with several questions by my fellow officers that all asked, in essence: “Why are you here? Are you some type of crusader?”

At first, the comments meant nothing to me, but then I started to brood on them. I reflected on my childhood in Lake Forest, Illinois. In actuality, I never met anyone my age or slightly older who wished to serve in the armed forces. The Memorial Day parades I witnessed seemed more like a gathering of the last surviving Union Army vets. No one under the age of 60 marched. Lake Forest had a gigantic generation gap of men who had not served; and sadly, who had no desire to serve.

Except for a smattering of wealthy Southerners and other adventurers, the upper class of this country has long been AWOL from the military. Why are they AWOL? Unlike past conflicts, why are they not participating in the military?

There are those that would argue that the upper class has always found a loophole to avoid service. During the Civil War, wealthy robber barons could buy their way out of the draft for a mere 300 greenbacks. They would usually send one of their immigrant servants in their place. Teddy Roosevelt’s father did just that. This lone act produced a son with a chip on his shoulder (combine the burdensome chip with the mad lust of William Randolph Hearst and the result was one splendid little war for TR in Cuba.

Even so, during the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt’s friends from New York City served with him in combat. The so-called Park Avenue Gang fought with courage on San Juan Hill. William Tiffany, the heir to the Tiffany fortune, died storming the fortifications with Teddy and western cowboys at his side.

Looking farther back in time, our Founding Fathers were all upper-class gentlemen who had the intestinal fortitude to stand-up to the greatest power on earth, Great Britain. I have a hard time picturing today’s Phi Beta Kappa portfolio managers showing such sheer bravado.

The upper class was widely represented during World War II. Partly, because there was a draft that swept up almost every able-bodied man; partly because members of the American upper class felt it was their duty to serve their country in such a solemn hour for the defense of freedom.

The U.S. Army in World War II was the last time the whole nation was truly represented in the armed forces. People from all walks of life joined together for one great cause. The banker from New York crouched in a foxhole at Bastogne with the coal miner from West Virginia. The Montana cowboy flew a bomber with the stock trader from Philadelphia. Maybe it worked so well because people knew the gravity of the situation at hand.

During the Vietnam War, the upper class still fought, although the percentage of the military from its ranks was significantly dwindled from World War II. Many did stay in school to avoid service. But, it is a myth to believe that all of the draftees were poor in Vietnam. Patriotic kids from Harvard still felt it was their duty to serve.

In the 1980s, I graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. SMU has always been a very conservative school. In fact, the George W. Bush Presidential Library is at SMU. When I was there, the student population hovered around 10,000. You would think that at a conservative university with a student body of 10,000, you might have a sizable ROTC detachment. Wrong.

The SMU Army ROTC Detachment comprised nine cadets and one very frustrated and bored captain. He seemed to spend most of his time hitting on gorgeous coeds in sorority shirts. The kids at SMU had obviously been told by their parents to avoid the military like the bubonic plague. SMU students were there to become bankers, oil traders, CPAs, lawyers; jobs where you can earn way over six figures. The military with its lousy pay and blue-collar reputation wasn’t even an option for the little J.R. Ewings of that era. The response from most SMU people when I told them I wanted to be an Army officer was “Are you out of your mind?”

Has anything really changed thirty years hence? It doesn’t look that way.
Most wealthy kids are elbowing each other for chairs on Fortune 500 boards, not for a place in the recruiter’s line.

In the 42 years since we abolished the draft in 1973, we have created an all-volunteer force of middle and lower class people who are bearing the burden for the whole country.

The military has become something like a famous painting in a museum; to be admired but never touched. American society is happy to “support the troops”, as long as their complete involvement in the military only includes standing at attention with a tub of Buffalo Wings while the National Anthem plays at an NFL game.

Under the guise of “supporting the troops”, which has become a cliché, the American people are just fine with less than ONE percent of the nation serving in the military and fighting its wars.

How can the military draw people to its ranks? If it plans on actually continuing with an all-volunteer force, I believe that we must significantly raise the pay of service members. Our government wastes money on everything else. It’s time to start paying these people the equivalent of civilian salaries.

The military must stop showcasing itself as the last bastion of jobs for the unemployed. It must present itself as an honorable profession that has and needs people of the highest caliber. It needs not only the best and brightest, but the best and the brightest with intestinal fortitude.

Visit your local recruiter or ROTC rep on campus. They’ll be happy to accommodate you.

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