Thursday, July 12, 2007


Service and Sacrifice

National Public Radio (NPR) has been running an ongoing series on service, and the latest two installments have touched on mandatory national service, which would include (but not be limited to) a potential draft, and military service at a time of war.

In the latter, NPR’s Morning Edition ran a piece today, annotated as follows:

Army Ranks See Imbalance in Iraq War Sacrifice

Morning Edition, July 12, 2007 · Army Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, Commander of the 1st Armored Division, which is soon to deploy to Iraq, has two sons who are Army officers and have served in Iraq. Hertling says many in the military are recognizing, if not resenting, a growing imbalance of sacrifice in the war in Iraq.

I guess an “abstract,” if that’s what you’d call this, can’t possibly capture the entirety of a larger whole, but this seems a selective characterization of a quite remarkable interview. You should listen to the whole thing, available at NPR.

Interviewer Steve Inskeep started off his portrait by contrasting the perspective of Hertling’s wife back in 2003 and now, and asked her if she feels any different now versus then. She carefully reflected that it is harder to relate, and shared the example of a conversation about what products to use for lawn care. She remarked that concerns (for a military family) are different.

Inskeep really did an exceptional job in this interview, he drew out of Hertling and his wife an honest and engaging portrait of this family, who together have sacrificed so much, and still have so much at potential risk.

Inskeep used the example of his own fatherly concern for a young daughter, and contrasted that with what Hertling and his wife must experience with his sons, both now commissioned officers, when they deploy to Iraq.

Hertling’s wife has had to endure the deployment of Hertling or either of his two grown sons to Iraq for the all of the past 4 years, with only a 3 month respite. Mrs. Dadmanly described her won version of that experience something like this:

“Soldiers, you know when you’re in danger, and when you’re [relatively] safe. We families don’t know. For us, we worry for the entire time you’re gone. Even when we talk to you on the phone, or email or instant message, if we don’t actually hear the booms, we can hear the stress and concern in you. You can’t hide it that well, at least not all the time.”

Hertling responded first by noting that he and his family pray a lot. That is always a remarkable thing to hear, given the approbation accorded public expressions of faith, due to the widespread conflation of the constitutionally proscribed establishment of religion, with the constitutionally protected freedom of religious expression.

Hertling added that his sons made adult decisions, that they are doing what they need to do, in terms of serving their country, and leading their soldiers. They’re both officers, and Hertling observed that whatever else they were accomplishing, they were leading their soldiers, doing what they can to make sure they got home safe and sound. That was their mission.

Will his sons remain in service (after their current obligation), Inskeep asked, given the demands and deployments, the risks and public disapproval?

One of Hertlings sons did come back asking that question from a recent deployment, Hertling admitted. His son was tired, and wanted to get to know his girlfriend, now his wife, before having to endure yet another separation. In the end, he decided he needed to stay, that they were accomplishing good things in Iraq, that he wanted to see things through to the end.

Inskeep asked if Hertling spent time with many civilians, he first answered, “not really, other than German civilians.” (He’s stationed in Germany.) Then he said, sure, when he visits home. It gets difficult. There are many things about service in the military, about Iraq, that (non-military) people don’t understand. They don’t understand the full measure of sacrifice involved in family separation. He specifically said, “They don’t understand our memorial services.”

That caused Inskeep to linger for a moment, “You say they don’t understand memorial services?” Hertling said they don’t understand why we fire guns, or approach the empty boots and helmet, and salute a portrait of the fallen soldier. They don’t understand the brotherhood of military service. You could hear that Hertling choked up as he attempted to put the inexpressible in words.

Hertling was asked, would he ever reach the point of saying, “I’ve done enough, my family’s done enough.” He hesitated for a number of seconds, then said, he’d have to think about that a moment, and almost immediately said simply, “No.”

NPR’s piece in the same series yesterday is also annotated on their website:

Volunteerism Off Peak Since Sept. 11 Terror Attack

Morning Edition, July 11, 2007 · Interest in federal volunteer programs such as AmeriCorps spiked and then tapered after the September 11th terrorist attacks. But David Eisner, head of the agency that oversees the federal volunteer programs, says there is no intent on federalizing volunteering. Eisner spoke with John Ydstie.

Eisner, Chief Executive Officer for the Corporation for National and Community Service,  said more than that there was “no intent,” he said he would recommend against “Federalizing” national service by making it mandatory rather than voluntary. More on that in a moment.

In this interview with Eisner, the discussion did indeed touch on a slight reduction in public interest in federal volunteer programs (only very recently). Eisner, when asked if the unpopularity for the war in Iraq or mistrust of Government might account for the decrease in interest, said that some believe that frustration or the perception that the Government isn’t doing the right things actually prompts people to find ways to serve on an individual basis.

The interview with Eisner included an explicit contrast with service and war now, versus what we experienced in World War II. Then, to use Eisner’s term, service was indeed “Federalized.” Eisner accounted in part for why that worked then, but wouldn’t now, but until I can run to audio again I can’t recall his point. Not observed or remarked on, however, was the degree to which mandatory Federal Service during WWII did not require as many soldiers due to the high level of voluntary enlistment. The draft would have been much heavier, without the vast response of service age American men responding to what was rightly viewed as a critically urgent threat to America and US interests.

Which brings me back to the awkward pause in response to Inskeep’s question to MGEN Hertling, could any of us who serve reach a point when we say, I’ve done enough.”

When I thought about it, when I think about it, I think, I could always retire. (Though as a Guardsman, I have to wait until 60 to earn any actual retirement benefit, despite 24 years of service.) MGEN Hertling could as well. In his case, as an Active Duty soldier, he’d receive his retirement pay and benefits immediately. Two star generals get treated pretty darn well, let me tell you, and Master Sergeants do well enough, too.

Retirement in any occupation or career or service is an individual matter, just like deciding on a career or serving in anything, to begin with. We all have our reasons for serving, and for surrendering that call upon our lives and resources.

I know when I retire, I will still feel the pull of the job left undone, even if many widely and fully conclude that we succeed in our efforts in Iraq, or in our broader fight [not to be called the Global War on Terror].

How much more so this man of faith would feel the pull, when his sons continue to serve on the Front Lines in this Long War.

Asking those who feel the pull to question, in this dance around the issue, why more Americans don’t feel that same pull, is a kind of challenge to those who sacrifice most. “Why don’t I feel the same way you do?” The questioner can find an answer only for himself.

When I think about it, I made all kinds of decisions that carried me into service, continued in service, and once even carried me into a combat zone I never expected to see. I usually had an almost carelessness about those moments of decision. My initial active duty enlistment, I didn’t even consult with my wife at the time. I needed a job. When I got off active duty and couldn’t find a job right away, I kept my bills at bay with the part-time income from the National Guard.

Each re-enlistment, until the ones after 9/11, were a kind of, well, why not, I have this much time in, go the distance for twenty. After 9/11, of course, our motivations changed. As Guard and Reserve deployments accelerated and increased, re-enlistment became the way many responded to the pull that 9/11 started.

Whether we have sons or other loved ones in this fight, the fight continues. Whether or not our favored party is in control partly or entirely, the fight continues. “You may not be interested in war,” Trotsky I think was said to observe, “but war is interested in you.”

Does it matter who’s sons and daughters remain in the fight, for us to feel the pull?

I, and most of those of us who serve, do not want to be called heroes, certainly not merely on the basis of the fact that we serve. (I do reserve the right to use that term is speaking of some of my fellow soldiers, who so often accomplish the purely remarkable.)

We only feel the pull, and respond.

(Cross-posted at MILBLOGS)

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