Saturday, March 7, 2015

American Sniper Takes On Democracy

© Charles D. Hayes

Whether intended or not, one of the most successful war movies in decades very subtly makes the case that America is increasingly undemocratic. American Sniper brings this message home. I’ve both seen the movie and read the book, and as is often the case, I have mixed feelings about how the two compare.

First, a little background may be helpful. I’m an ex-Marine and an ex-cop. After four years of service, I was honorably discharged from the Marines in February of 1964. Six months after I got out, enlistments were automatically extended because of increased military involvement in Vietnam.

During the Tet Offensive in 1968, I felt so guilty for not being in the war that I submitted a letter of resignation to the Dallas police department and began the process of reenlistment in the Corps. As a homeowner, however, I determined that financial realities would prohibit me from following through because selling wasn’t an option and my mortgage cost more than military pay would accommodate. So I wound up staying with the police department.

Needless to say, I was a hawk during the Vietnam War, but today I view that war as a colossal mistake. The political assumption during the Cold War was that if we didn’t stop Communism, there would be a domino effect as country after country would follow suit. It didn’t happen. Instead, Americans today are eager to do business in Vietnam.

The American Sniper story is disturbing for a multitude of reasons, some of which are deeply contradictory. Chris Kyle’s book, written with the assistance of ghostwriters, has an adolescent feel that is morally too black and white. He gives the impression that killing is fun and expresses a sports-like enthusiasm for always being on the lookout for some payback. But Kyle is no longer here to defend himself, so those of us who are tempted to criticize him personally might want to pause and offer him the benefit of the doubt, acknowledging what it means to have been awarded two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars. 

The movie shows how hard combat is on service members and their families. Seldom do we acknowledge in this country how so many men and women sacrifice so much for so little acknowledgment or reward. The monetary compensation for many members of the armed forces is so meager as to make some of them eligible for food stamps. Moreover, those who are seriously wounded in combat with lasting consequences are virtually guaranteed to be afforded the economic status of second-class citizens.

That the number of suicides among service members has climbed higher in recent years than the losses of life in combat should get our attention. Wounded Warrior commercials make me furious at times, not because they aren’t a good thing but because they are needed at all, after the sacrifices made by members of our armed services. Wounded veterans shouldn’t have to depend on charity to get what they need, period. The fact that they must ask for additional assistance is, in my view, a national disgrace.

My point in this piece is not to add to the numerous reviews both positive and negative about American Sniper as a book or a movie. Plenty of divergent opinions worth reading are already available. My aim is to focus on the real culprits: the American public at large, who salute the flag and sometimes vote but otherwise tend to rely on under-rewarded volunteers to carry out the rest of their patriotic duty.

Being patriotic involves helping to share the load of obligations and decisions in matters as important as war, and every able citizen in a democracy should accept this responsibility in some form or other. Democracy requires common ground, which literally means having something in common. And yet, we have echelons of social and economic classes in America who don’t have enough shared experience in common to engage in five minutes worth of viable conversation, let alone share the same political and economic concerns.

A country with nothing more worthwhile to do than to go shopping when they send their troops off to war is democratically dysfunctional at best. A voluntary army means that the general public has no skin in the game, so to speak, which allows our military to be abused and used as a political tool without public consensus or protest.

In a capitalistic society with an all-volunteer military, a declining economy is an incentive for poor people to enlist in military service as a matter of survival. If those with real economic power have no obligation to serve, whatsoever, then decisions about sending troops in harm’s way are likely to occur without truly democratic concern among the general populace.

An all-volunteer military results in a fiendishly disingenuous exhibition of phony appreciation that appears to celebrate a class of self-sacrificing individuals as especially patriotic, except when it comes to actual economic compensation for their service and sacrifice. In the meantime, we have a virtual army in the numbers of executives in publicly owned companies who make more in an hour or a day than what our service members earn in a year, a situation that owes more to the system rigging of crony capitalists than laissez faire economics.

In his free to choose economic ethos, the late Milton Friedman often made a compelling case for the dynamics of capitalism, but he compared a military draft with slavery. He was wrong, egregiously wrong.

Serving one’s country as a matter of routine obligation, whether in the military or another kind of public service, is a means of living up to the inherent responsibility required of citizenship in a democratic society. Accepting low wages initially, for a short period of time, in service dedicated to a country that defends opportunity and upward mobility is something that ought to be seen as a rite of passage for everyone. Universal conscription would democratize concern for the safety of everyone while creating a common ground of experience and of personal accountability.

For decades, men and women in the lower economic rungs of society have shouldered most of the responsibility for American military objectives worldwide, while the vast majority of our citizens remain disinterested if not downright indifferent. That we do not have enough of a sense of duty in this country to demand the sacrifices necessary to sustain ourselves democratically with a universal contribution is appalling. Worse still is that, save a global catastrophe, this is not likely to change.

A country whose politicians never seem to miss an opportunity to refer to ours as the greatest nation on the earth should cringe with shame and embarrassment that any members of our military require food stamps to get by. We should heed the words of George Washington who said, “When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen.” Sadly, it seems that this is precisely what we have done. We have allowed the ethos of our economic system to erode the character of citizenship, and we need to make it right, beginning with reinstating the draft, making service mandatory without exception.

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