24 February 2010

Conscripts and Convicts

Odd as it may seem, I was thinking about Bob Dole in the shower just now.  That is to say, I was in the shower, and I happened to think of Mr. Dole and wondered how he was faring with his current bout of pneumonia.  My wife has endured that particular brand of misery a few times in the last few years, so perhaps that's why I made a mental note of his current ails.  In any event, that caused me to contemplate the broader issue of the relationship between politics and the military.

Mr. Dole's chief claim to fame is being a wounded veteran who has dedicated his career, indeed his very life, in the service of his country.  By every account, he has done so honorably.  Whenever the politics/military relationship arises, though, I cannot help but recall Max Cleland, the former Senator from Georgia who lost his re-election bid in 2002.  Cleland, you may recall, was a Vietnam veteran whose service in action cost him his legs and right forearm (they were amputated following the accidental explosion of a grenade belonging to a less experienced private).  What cost Cleland his seat in the U.S. Senate?  His opponent managed to actually convince voters that Mr. Cleland lacked the requisite patriotism to serve his constituents.

Now, I'm not presenting to you a researched editorial, but rather attempting to recap the thought process from my shower, so we're going to leave Mr. Cleland and his campaign for another discussion.  The larger question that emerges from these two decent, fine upstanding men is: To what extent does military service qualify one for public office?

There is, of course, the notion that military service is the highest form of citizenship; that our men and women in uniform have "put their money where their mouth is," so to speak.  I, for one, have great admiration for the kind of passion and dedication it requires to selflessly conform to the rigorous and sometimes arbitrary demands of military service.  But is that enough?  I mean, my dad is a Vietnam veteran and while I have no desire to delve into the dynamics of our less-than-ideal relationship, suffice it to say that without impugning him in the least, I could not envision endorsing him as a candidate for office.

Consider the atrocious number of homeless veterans.  Some would have us believe that they were used and discarded by the country that called on them, and others insist that their current woes reflect their own choices and nothing more.  As always, the truth is somewhere between the two extremes.  Regardless, we know that historically the military has been populated by young men and women from less fortunate backgrounds.  How many small town kids sign up to get out of their given Mayberry, buying into the "adventure camp" marketing of military service?  Quite a lot.  Entire studies have been conducted and papers (nay, books) written about the limited opportunities afforded to a distinctly high percentage of recruits.

This brings me to my next point, which is that all too often, many troubled youth eventually reach a crossroads that either takes them into Uncle Sam's service, or leads down a spiraling path toward a life of criminal behavior.  Why this should be, I cannot say, but we know that the trend is there.  Many a recruiter could fill volumes with the names of soldiers they persuaded to enlist with the enticement of offering much-needed discipline and structure.  Those who resist the call to service generally find similar conditions behind bars, and while I'm sure more than one soldier has ruefully employed the analogy, there is no small truth in it.  Neither solider nor convict has much real say over his or her daily activities.  True, the soldier is free to leave base and enjoy pleasures denied to incarcerated persons, but that freedom only exists to the extent permitted by one's superiors.

With me so far?  Mind you, all of what I have so far relayed to you crossed my mind in the time it took to lather my hair.  So, what I began to wonder is...what happens to either group once they are discharged/released?  I cannot quote statistics, but the prevailing perception at least holds that all too many of our once-noble soldiers struggle to adjust to civilian life, begin abusing substances to help digest the enormity of what they'd seen and done under our flag.  Alienation of loved ones and self-destruction ensues.  For the former inmate, a similarly difficult attempt adjusting to life "on the outside."  The temptations are overwhelming, and their wherewithal lacking; hence, a favorite term of the media's: "repeat offenders."

Perhaps the flaw is that both systems attract youth who lack the ability to practice critical thinking and sound judgment for themselves.  This is not to say that joining the military is evidence of stupidity.  But consider the youth who sees the writing on the wall in his senior year of high school and knows that if he doesn't want to go to jail like his classmates, he needs to get out of town and the easiest and surest way is to sign up.  What happens in either case is this: During the years served in uniform or behind bars, one is not encouraged to think for oneself because one lacks any meaningful autonomy.  After literal years of conditioning oneself to defer to others, it is simply overwhelming to be expected to then fend for oneself...especially in a cutthroat capitalist society.

How many employers are discouraged by the resumes of soldiers who did not augment their time in uniform with higher education?  You might be better disciplined than someone else competing for the job, but unless the job calls for running in formation or performing an uncommonly high number of push-ups on a regular basis, the guy who has spent four years pursuing a bachelor's degree, advancing through the lower ranks in the business and cultivating his networking skills has every advantage over the soldier.  What does he have to show for his dedication?

Conversely, despite how many of the public resent inmates having the opportunity to learn job skills or take classes while behind bars, we know that few do these things.  Those who do are making a sincere effort to reform (which is what we, as a society, have actually asked them to do), but let's be honest.  The Bookworm of Cell Block D isn't going to beat out the soldier in the previous paragraph for the hypothetical job, much less the schmoozing college kid.  His efforts are for naught; he'll be lucky to flip burgers and he didn't need to apply himself to anything meaningful behind bars to get that work.

We admire the soldier's noble selflessness in our society, and we scorn the error of the convict's ways, and I would generally say we do both rightly.  Still, I cannot help but think of these two demographics and ask what implications there really are for our society and how poorly we have asked our youth to develop critical thinking skills and sound judgment.  By now, I've rinsed and am turning off the water, and so I conclude my written account of today's shower.  As always, I invite comments, questions, challenges, etc. as long as they are thoughtful and free of spam.

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