Joining the Army

I just wanted to say something about the frequent canard stating that students who don’t do well in school end up going to Iraq.

Stephen King had some quick line about it recently:

“I don’t want to sound like an ad, a public service ad on TV, but the fact is if you can read, you can walk into a job later on. If you don’t, then you’ve got, the Army, Iraq, I don’t know, something like that. It’s, it’s not as bright. So, that’s my little commercial for that.”

This is quite similar to John Kerry’s brilliant line, “You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

I think I know what Kerry and King are trying to say (and I’m sympathetic to it especially after the chickenhawks attacked them for their comments), but I think the connection between education and military recruitment is weak. People don’t just join the military because they’re too dumb to get a job, as King and Kerry infer. I think it’s more as though they join the military because there’s not a lot of opportunities where they are.

I met a lot of well-educated people in the military, a lot of middling people, and a lot of dumb people. What seemed universal was that people wanted to have opportunities in their lives. They wanted to do something important, something greater than the path they were on beforehand. The military gets them out of their small town; otherwise, they’d be doing the same job with the same small group of people for the rest of their lives.

The military is the most ethnically diverse community in the country. It also provides a lot of training, and free health care, housing, and food. It is a socialist organization operating within a dominantly capitalist United States. This is our country’s dirty little capitalist secret.

I found that a lot of infantry-types tended to be white country-farm boys who were ready to kill some terrorists. A disproportionate amount seemed to come from small towns. Idealism is a prime motivation — I should know because it was part of the reason I enlisted after 9/11.

But there’s a lot of Latinos and black people in the military also. Look at the great deal they’re getting. Instead of living in some urban wasteland, they get to join an egalitarian organization that rewards you based on hard-fast standards. They get to travel. They get money for school. They get health care — complete coverage for their new families.

I saw a study that showed that fewer blacks are entering combat MOSs now than they used to. This makes sense. I don’t think the black community is very eager to fight for Bush’s adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. They aren’t looking to fight a war, period. They are entering for the opportunities, not for the idealist pro-American bullshit that I think a lot of the young redneck infantry kids join for. Special forces, for example, was almost exclusively filled with white hicks. The support positions and logistics were full of minorities. This wasn’t just a coincidence.

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, neo-liberals might say.

Well. Even if you study hard and do well, you might grow up in a community that is disconnected from the luxuries of college. In fact, there are non-government organizations that have tried to fill the gap: they are providing workshops and reinforcement for students to help them write better statements of purpose and to sell themselves better for getting into universities. It is not that colleges don’t want these students (they fall all over themselves trying to admit hardship cases to promote diversity with); it’s that the students submit weak packets.

So, sadly the statements by King and Kerry convey an ignorant, but relatively harmless impression of the uneducated and the military. The truth is far darker.

The truth is that America has been deteriorating. The truth is that the military’s becoming one of the last options for people who have the bravery and the support of their communities to leave everything they had and go sign up with Uncle Sam. Families don’t send off their children saying, “Well that’s a relief. He never would’ve gotten another job.” It’s more that they say, “He’s going to go off into the world and then make us proud.” Many families are happy to see their children make a better life for themselves in the military. It’s the only way out for some people.

As the neo-liberals dismantle the country’s infrastructure by making almost every government institution functionally useless, the military has thrived with a blank-check budget. Ridding our country of that foolish, short-term pseudo-economic bullshit is what we need to focus on. Not on scaring kids into studying so they won’t end up with big, bad Uncle Sam.