Steve Russell

On This Memorial Day, Reflections on Hot Dogs, Beer and the Draft

I wish you a good Memorial Day, with plenty of hot dogs on the grill and beer in the cooler.

Those of us who choose to defend ourselves in the class warfare begun by the one percent should, on Memorial Day, give some thought to a different one percent, the one percent of us who choose military service.

At the outset, I should confess to the greatest political error I made in my life. I was opposed to the draft. Don’t get me wrong. It was true that the draft was not fair. It was more likely to fall on guys like me than guys like Willard Romney (who did his public service as a missionary living in a very impressive mansion in France) or George W. Bush (who had the pull to get into the Weekend Warriors back when they did not have to fight) or Dick Cheney (who had “other priorities”).

In spite of the fact that the draft was not fair, working class guys volunteered, as I did, in greater numbers than volunteers of the class that produced Al Gore and John Kerry.

That’s all changed now, and one one percent runs the country while a different one percent fights the country’s wars. The natural result of those two facts is that the latter one percent is more expendable than ever. After all, they volunteered, right?

In my generation’s war, Vietnam, everybody knew somebody who went and most of us knew somebody who did not return. A combat tour was a year, and if you went back for another, you generally did it on purpose.

In WWI, they discovered something they called “shell shock.” In WWII, where everybody had to fight for the duration, they called it “combat fatigue.” The current jargon is “post-traumatic stress disorder” and we know now it’s not peculiar to soldiers. The second most common instance of it is women who are victims of rape or repeated battering.

PTSD is more common because the current crop of soldiers are seeing a lot more combat than any soldiers ever in human history. Historically, a state of war mobilized an entire population. Taxes went up to pay the costs and able-bodied men had to have a good reason not to fight. It’s not that way in these recent wars. We put them on credit and they are fought by hired gladiators.

Like all wars, they have given us some incredible stories of heroism. The heroes now, though, are not ordinary Joes, but professionals. Takes away a lot of the romance to think of combat injuries like a worker’s comp claim, no?

This generation of soldiers is filing for VA disability compensation at a rate greater than any prior generation. The current administration increased the budget for VA health care more than any other in history, because the prior administration that gave us two wars on credit had not funded VA medical care and did everything possible to stop Sen. Jim Webb’s update of the GI Bill…reason being, “we can’t afford it.”

As I write, the unemployment rate for returning veterans is twice the unemployment rate for civilians in their age cohort.

Combat tours are still a year, but they amount to every other year indefinitely. At Skipcha Elementary School, where one of my grandsons attends, there’s a whole generation of kids that have had at least one parent, and sometimes both, in combat zones every other year for their entire lives. They think all kids celebrate life events on Skype.

The rest of us can read about the one percent in uniform maybe three times a year: Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, and when the President awards a Medal of Honor in the White House and we catch part of the citation reading on the national news. Some of us then pause and reflect on the superhuman devotion that decoration represents in modern times. It was not always so. The troops that perpetrated the Wounded Knee Massacre got Medals of Honor for opening up on women and children and old men with Hotchkiss guns. One thing that has gotten better in modern times is that war crimes get known more quickly and sometimes even prosecuted.

There were always war crimes, though. War is ugly. Always has been. That’s why I was wrong to oppose the draft. The more people who have to bear the burden, the more likely our leaders will find ways to accomplish our goals that do not involve going to war.

These are strange times to live in, when most of the benefits of our society flow to one percent and social mobility is at an all time low. And the most devastating burdens of our society fall on a different one percent.

Enjoy your hot dogs.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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On This Memorial Day, Reflections on Hot Dogs, Beer and the Draft

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