As far as I know, there has not been a formal declaration of war in my lifetime (since 1967). Still, various presidents have sent our military around the planet in a variety of combat missions, most recently to Afghanistan and Iraq. There also has not been a mandatory draft in my lifetime, which has resulted in a military composed of the patriotic (an act of service to the nation) and the poor (those who join to learn a skill or earn money for college, or simply to escape a life of flipping hamburgers).
According to Chris Hedges, in a new article for the Boston Review, the reality is even more harsh:
We condition the poor and the working class to go to war. We promise them honor, status, glory, and adventure. We promise boys they will become men. We hold these promises up against the dead-end jobs of small-town life, the financial dislocations, credit card debt, bad marriages, lack of health insurance, and dread of unemployment. The military is the call of the Sirens, the enticement that has for generations seduced young Americans working in fast food restaurants or behind the counters of Walmarts to fight and die for war profiteers and elites.I doubt that Hedges identifies himself with the term, but I'm willing to bet he has been named a Marxist by the rich, mostly-white "ruling class" he so often targets in his articles and books. For him, this is a nation of social class built on wealth and power - the rich (the proverbial 1%) vs. the rest of us.
The poor are those who do the hardest most dangerous work, and that includes military service - of the 25 most dangerous jobs, 99% of those doing them are men, and of those men, my guess is that a fair percentage are from low-income families and from minority families. And now, even women are beginning to enter these fields (especially military service).
Here is some more from Hedge's article, War Is Betrayal: Persistent Myths of Combat:
At the age of ten I was given a scholarship to a top New England boarding school. I spent my adolescence in the schizophrenic embrace of the wealthy, on the playing fields and in the dorms and classrooms that condition boys and girls for privilege, and came back to my working-class relations in the depressed former mill towns in Maine. I traveled between two universes: one where everyone got chance after chance after chance, where connections and money and influence almost guaranteed that you would not fail; the other where no one ever got a second try. I learned at an early age that when the poor fall no one picks them up, while the rich stumble and trip their way to the top.This was true, in its own way, in my own high school.
Those I knew in prep school did not seek out the military and were not sought by it. But in the impoverished enclaves of central Maine, where I had relatives living in trailers, nearly everyone was a veteran. My grandfather. My uncles. My cousins. My second cousins. They were all in the military. Some of them—including my Uncle Morris, who fought in the infantry in the South Pacific during World War II—were destroyed by the war. Uncle Morris drank himself to death in his trailer. He sold the hunting rifle my grandfather had given to me to buy booze.
He was not alone. After World War II, thousands of families struggled with broken men who, because they could never read the approved lines from the patriotic script, had been discarded. They were not trotted out for red-white-and-blue love fests on the Fourth of July or Veterans Day.
The myth of war held fast, despite the deep bitterness of my grandmother—who acidly denounced what war had done to her only son—and of others like her. The myth held because it was all the soldiers and their families had. Even those who knew it to be a lie—and I think most did—were loath to give up the fleeting moments of recognition, the only times in their lives they were told they were worth something.
“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’” Rudyard Kipling wrote. “But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.”
Any story of war is a story of elites preying on the weak, the gullible, the marginal, the poor. I do not know of a single member of my graduating prep school class who went into the military. You could not say this about the high school class that graduated the same year in Mechanic Falls, Maine.
Only none of us were wealthy. The only true wealth in rural Southern Oregon was intelligence and hard work, our ticket to college. For others, especially the young men, it was a life in the timber mills (a life that dried up not long after we graduated) or spend a few years in the military to earn money for college or learn a trade.
Hedges can be prone to more than a little hyperbole, but this article is pretty spot on. Read the whole thing.
But before you go read the article (and I hope you do), here is one last passage that gets the point across in case you choose not to click through:
War comes wrapped in patriotic slogans; calls for sacrifice, honor, and heroism; and promises of glory. It comes wrapped in the claims of divine providence. It is what a grateful nation asks of its children. It is what is right and just. It is waged to make the nation and the world a better place, to cleanse evil. War is touted as the ultimate test of manhood, where the young can find out what they are made of. From a distance it seems noble. It gives us comrades and power and a chance to play a bit part in the great drama of history. It promises to give us identities as warriors, patriots, as long as we go along with the myth, the one the war-makers need to wage wars and the defense contractors need to increase their profits.
But up close war is a soulless void. War is about barbarity, perversion, and pain. Human decency and tenderness are crushed, and people become objects to use or kill. The noise, the stench, the fear, the scenes of eviscerated bodies and bloated corpses, the cries of the wounded all combine to spin those in combat into another universe. In this moral void, naïvely blessed by secular and religious institutions at home, the hypocrisy of our social conventions, our strict adherence to moral precepts, becomes stark. War, for all its horror, has the power to strip away the trivial and the banal, the empty chatter and foolish obsessions that fill our days. It might let us see, although the cost is tremendous.