Friday, July 03, 2009

One Year

A year ago tomorrow, give or take a few hours, I was at the airport waiting to fly out of Fort Benning.  Dead tired, a little bored with waiting, not really sure what I was getting into.  It was a long wait.  It was the fourth of July and as part of the tradition, the company chaplain read some of the stories of the battle streamers on the guidon.  He said something that I confess I have never checked- "Only one-half of one percent of the citizens of the United States have ever served in her military."  I find that chilling and disturbing, if true.  Not 'serving now'- have ever served.

When the plane rolled out, it was a hot, humid brutal Georgia day... and the entire company was out on the runway, saluting as we flew off.  We were flying high over Boston in the dark and far below we could see the little pops of the Independence Day fireworks. Little pops at 30,000 feet but a beautiful sight from the parks and the harbor.

It's been a big year.  I can now claim stumbling incompetence in even more languages.  Found out things about myself, and things about the world. Rocked some of my "must be trues" and "obviouslies".  Have an entirely new set of things where the educated point of view about what a people believes doesn't match what happens on the ground.  More, too.  Stories that I can't tell.  Things that, I think, would make many of you very proud but silence is one of the rules of this game.  Someday, perhaps.

Not just here.  My lovely wife and remarkable children (really a young man and woman now) have also had a big year half a world away.  Full of challenges and things that might have been disasters.  Watching and listening from a distance I've been awed by their strength and adaptability. They don't need me, which makes the love that we share more true.  I admire them, so that even if there were no ties of blood, no years of shared time, I would still want to know these people and would feel honored to spend time with them.

Yet every time I see her picture, K takes my breath away. Still. After nearly twenty-three years together.  That's not bad.  Friendship and trust and admiration are nice. Passion doesn't hurt, either.

You, too, reading this. You've been a part of this year for me as well. Thank you.


Stephen Grey said...

Why do you find it chilling and disturbing that such a small percentage of the US population have served in the military?

1) Our military budget is more than 10 times that of our nearest superpower competitor, which is China. Furthermore our money is far more efficient, going to technology that's not available to them.

2) Half of your tax dollars go to the military. This means that every working american citizen spends some non-trivial amount of time every day working, effectively unpaid, to maintain the nuclear stockpiles. Oh, by the way, this happens with a gun to your head because you don't have a choice in the matter.

3) We can incinerate every square inch of dirt on the planet multiple times over.

Yet, as a nation, we're so heavily propagandized by corporate-owned media that we cower in fear the first time some towel-wearing yak herdsmen from Uzbekistan shake their AKs and shout "Oooga-booga!" We're so utterly terrified, in fact, that people demonstrate in the streets demanding that PNAC and AIPAC abrogate even more of our civil rights in the name of false security against an enemy that barely exists at all.

That's what *I* find chilling and disturbing.

Kai Jones said...

Worg writes: This means that every working american citizen spends some non-trivial amount of time every day working, effectively unpaid, to maintain the nuclear stockpiles.

Gee, I spend that time working to pay for the defense of my society against aggressors with power, like North Korea. Just like some of my working time goes to locking up predatory criminals, and some of it goes to letting fire fighters sit around for hours on end just in case my home (or even someone else's) catches fire.

My father served (including in Vietnam as part of a 30-year career), one of my uncles, and one of my brothers. A great-uncle died in WWII. My first husband's father served in Korea. A great-great-great grandfather served with the armies of Maximilian in Mexico.

Serving in the military demonstrates a willingness to put other people's welfare (people who are not in your family or tribe, people you may not even know) above your own, a mature quality that drives civilization as we know it.

Steve Perry said...

From the internet:

9% of US Populations
Total Population - 303 million
Active Military - 5 million
Veterans - 23.5 million

Joe L of Prince Frederick, MD

Given the numbers of people in the U.S., and how much of a standing Army and Navy, Marines, Air Force, National Guard are considered necessary for defense, more than 1% or so at any given would be too many in what is considered a brush (or sand) war. During WWII, the percentage was higher.

As for North Korea's saber-rattling, I have to wonder. Apparently they don't know that if they fired off a missile at Hawaii or Seattle, Pyongyang could be turned into a radioactive pit before their rocket blew up halfway there ...

Anonymous said...

"Serving in the military demonstrates a willingness to put other people's welfare (people who are not in your family or tribe, people you may not even know) above your own, a mature quality that drives civilization as we know it."

Exactly. Thank you.

Unknown said...

"War is an ugly thing, but it is not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling that feels that nothing is worth war is much worse. A who has nothing for which he will fight, who values nothing more than his own, personal safety, is a miserable creature. And he stands no chance of being free, unless made and kept so through the exertions of better men than himself."

Unknown said...

yeah. 3rd line. 2nd word should be "man". I'm a genius.

Stephen Grey said...

"Serving in the military demonstrates a willingness to put other people's welfare (people who are not in your family or tribe, people you may not even know) above your own, a mature quality that drives civilization as we know it."

The definition you're looking for is "works in favor of civil society." I'm still not sure how "shoots people for a living" factors into that, sorry.

If what you were saying were true, we'd stop overthrowing democratically-elected governments and replacing them with right wing dictators friendly to the interests of United Fruit. Also, it's a very strange coincidence how the dictators that we do periodically declare war on every so often tend to be either emplaced by the United States or the product of peasant revolts against dictators supported by us.

Sorry to wake you up to this but we're in the middle of two wars of aggression against two countries that did not attack us, one of which has taken place under bogus pretexts, both of which were planned well ahead of the ostensible cassus belli.

Personally I'm a member of the human tribe. As such, I hold Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine as threat number one.

So, sorry, your little paean to American military superiority really doesn't hold any water.

United States military action is driven by altruism? I've got a bridge to sell you.

Anonymous said...

Rory, you don't know me, but I read your book about a year ago, and have been looking at this blog here and there ever since.

Whatever the 4th means to you and your family, I hope it's a safe, happy one this year for all of you.

Kami said...

If anyone believes that if we and all our allies got rid of our big nuclear arsenals the rest of the world would also happily stop pursuing the possibility of annihilating their hated neighbors with their own nuclear weapons, I too have a bridge I'd like to sell. World peace will come at the insistence of powerful nations who aim for it, not naturally when nice people ask that everyone put their guns away.

Mark Jones said...

"The definition you're looking for is 'works in favor of civil society.' I'm still not sure how 'shoots people for a living' factors into that, sorry."

Shooting people in and of itself is neither pro- nor anti-civilization. If you shoot people in the course of robbing them, you're a detriment to society. If you shoot people to stop them from raping, robbing or murdering someone, you're contributing to society.

Cops and soldiers jobs sometime involve shooting people in order to protect other people. That's how it factors into supporting civil society.

Glad I could clear that up for you.

Stephen Grey said...

Oh, I'm quite clear on the subject of killing. Looks like you're the one who needs a rudimentary education on the subject of morals. Just curious: do you call yourself christian?

If you lived in Iran, you'd no doubt be saying the same thing about the Iranian army. Patriotism is all about what piece of dirt you hail from and nothing more.

It's interesting that guys like you don't typically feel the same way about things like soup kitchens-- guns have to be involved. Hope you're enjoying those military taxes come April.

Happy 4th. Those bombs bursting in air must give you such chills of patriotic peristalsis.

Rory said...

Keep it civil. Watch the ad hominems including anything that starts with "guys like you."

Worg, as you point out, a large percentage of what each of us earn is taken, involuntarily. There is no moral good in something sacrificed involuntarily. It has to be a choice. 'Just' paying taxes. only doing that which you are afraid not to do, is meaningless. I find it appalling and chilling how few people risk or volunteer to sacrifice more of their own free will. That extends into charities and volunteer work as well. Our local schools make volunteering a requirement and it is an alien idea to the kids, though some come to love it. I heard one charity professional complain because almost all of the 'volunteers' were there to satisfy a misdemeanor conviction "community service" requirement and were less help than no volunteers at all.

And I can never tell, when people disparage military service how much is rationalizing fear or laziness. Especially if they show a fascination with other aspects of the martial.

BBC news reported that the PNAC ceased to exist, except as a website, in 2006. I've been called out for almost every local riot since 2002 and have never seen one calling for further abrogation of our civil rights.

Guatemala and the UFG/CIA thing was 54 years ago my friend. Saying that our declared enemies were either former friends or former enemies isn't really saying anything. Not sure how much, if any, water those arguments hold. For the rest, there is stuff I can't talk about. I agree with a lot of what you say, but from different information. But not all of it. That talk will have to wait for a beer.

I'll throw in two more things- I think if you look (and I know I am putting words in your mouth, but it is based on the 'christian' comment) you'll find that the people often labeled as 'right wing xians' give far more of their personal income to charities than any other group. I only personally know of one soup kitchen in Portland that isn't christian and funded by a church (Sisters of the Road).

And as for patriotism being about the dirt where you were born. I think it is for most, especially if that is all that you have seen. Sometimes when you get a solid exposure to different ways of looking at the world, you can make a choice.

A quote that made me proud, "I've seen soldiers on the street with rifles my whole life. The Americans are the only ones I've ever seen trying NOT to use them."

Thanks for the statistics. It's reassuring.

Anon- Traditionally on the Fourth I work. If not, I try to have a quiet night at home and re-read the constitution. I'm a geek that way.

That quote is important. This all got paid for, and will continue to be so. the interaction of basic rights and democracy is a one way ratchet. Because we've been in a good place it seems obvious that our opinions are ours, we can say or believe whatever we want. Until we meet actual people who believe that anyone who thinks or believes differently should be killed AND are smart enough to attempt to vote themselves into power it's hard to realize that once it ratchets in that direction it won't come back by itself. The belief in opinion isn't natural. It's something, largely, that Locke created and Jefferson elucidated. ( IME, but I'm not much a philosophy scholar.) Democracy can't protect itself from tyrants who know how to use the democratic process.

Kai- I wish we could allocate our own taxes. I have to pay 30%? Okay, I want it going 50% to debt paydown, 20% to Defense and emergency services, 10% to overhead and 20% to infrastructure and everything else can starve. It's a dream I have.

Mark- Good math.

Kami- Didn't expect this to turn into a hot button topic. You are still my favorite Eastern Bloc refugee.

Kai Jones said...

Worg: 1. Calling your opponents stupid is the argument of a person who can't convince based on facts. 2. I'm a Jew. If you want to bring religion into it, then I answer you with this: "When a man comes to kill you, kill him first." Sanhedrin 72a. 3. If your patriotism is tied to dirt, that's a personal problem. Mine is mostly about culture, only incidentally about geographic boundaries. 4. "Guys like me" donate more to charity than most non-profit tax-exempt organizations.

And just generally, Worg, your assumptions are getting in the way of having a meaningful conversation. Let go of the straw men.

Rory: I'm with you. Line item veto on my taxes, please!

Kami said...

R--I didn't see this one coming either. Interesting. I do think that the fact that my family fled from a hostile invading country tends to color my perceptions a bit. I know no amount of finger shaking and political admonitions stopped that. A military willing and able to defend its country's security might have kept my former country from being torn down from a world leader in music, art and technology to a third world country whose sole purpose was to supply goods and services to its conqueror.

Just as a data point, the first US military operation I learned about where someone I knew was actually involved was a medical mercy mission. Nobody ever seems to hear about those.

Steve Perry said...

Mark --

With all due consideration, if we were a civilized world, we wouldn't shoot each other for any reason.

Still got the pointed teeth, the naked apes.

What to do until the Messiah -- or enlightenment in whichever form you view it -- comes is a different question. I'd love to live in a world where we could sing kumbayah and live in perfect harmony. Since that's not how it is, we have to deal with a less pleasant reality. The bomber jet planes still need to ride shotgun in the sky ...

I don't see how reasonable people can blame the tools for the tragedy -- the troops are controlled by the civilians, and the victor gets to decide what were war crimes and what weren't.

I happened to believe that war is the height of mankind's folly, and stupid in general. Mass killing of each other does not come close to being civil.

War is hell, and as long as the troops comply with the rules agreed upon, they are just doing their jobs. The line between being a patriot and honorable, and feeding people to the ovens because you are just following orders sometimes gets blurred. When it all gets sorted out, you want to be on this side, and not that one.

I think our leaders have screwed up more than a few times when it comes to sending the military out and those are the folks who should be hung out to dry.

Put Recent Former Occupant of the White House and his Toady at the top of the list.

Your mileage may vary.

Jay Gischer said...

While I don't agree with many of the Government's military/defense policies, I do not blame the rank and file soldiers for them.

And it is this quality of Worg's comments that I find repellent.

There is a quality of self-sacrifice among soldiers that is highly commendable. That the self-congratulations for this can drift into hyperbole is, well, human.

However, serving in the military is not the only selfless act a citizen of the US can engage in. Please bear that in mind.

Rory can't say what he's doing in Iraq, and I respect that. However, given what I know of his resume, (something like 20 years working in corrections, yes?), and his temperament, I'd guess that he's doing work that will make things in Iraq more in line with my values, not less.

When you consider a monstrous mistake such as Abu Ghraib, it seems to me to be a failure at every step in the chain of command. From the lowliest private to the top. Were someone like Rory involved, things might have gone differently. Or Rory might have become roadkill, it's hard to say.

Don't forget that it was other soldiers who brought this incident to light, via investigations and photographs.

I consider it a privilege to read this blog, which is written so honestly, if sometimes cryptically. Thanks for writing it, Rory.

Mark Jones said...


You have a point, but as they say, "utopia is not an option." Given that there will be some minimal amount of shooting involved in maintaining civilization, there's still a value judgment to be made about said shootings. Not all of them are bad.

Steve Perry said...

I didn't say they were bad. I said they weren't civilized. They might be necessary to get there, and in some cases, the ends do justify the means, but as long as we are happily slaughtering each other en masse, we are not civilized.

One doesn't get to claim the moral high ground without demonstrating the necessary morality, and "we-ain't-as-bad-as-they-are" is hardly sufficient.

Starting a war without a really good reason, one that results in tens of thousand of dead people? I don't see that as a good thing. If you are in the military, you go where they send you and shoot who they tell you to shoot, I'm not going to piss on the guys on the front line.

The guys who sent them? Oh, yeah, piss on 'em all.
You can justify Afghanistan to a point because of the attacks on the U.S. Nobody has yet given me enough reason to justify Iraq. That was lies, more lies, smoke, mirrors, and bullshit. Not the faults of the boots on the ground or the decks or working the control pedals in the tanks or planes. It is somebody's fault, though -- the bastards who shipped them there.

Rory said...

My turn to quibble on word use. Civilization- Merely means a society considered advanced, Sub -use of 'polite'. In introductory anthropology, decades ago, the minimum line was set at being sufficiently advanced (organization, food surplus) to have a standing army, a profession dedicated to warfare. So, anthropologically, organized warfare (as opposed to cattle raids and the like) is one of the hallmarks of civilization. Doesn't make it right or moral...

Steve Perry said...

Quibbles always depend on whose ox is being gored.
"Advanced' might be applied to us when compared to a tribe ten thousand years ago, but the relatively is maybe tricky.

We haven't come so far. We have bigger and shinier toys, but that so many of them are desgign for the purpose of wholesale slaugher doesn't bespeak much of an improvement to our natures.

My standards are different for the term "civilized."

Anonymous said...

food for thought: Civilization and civilizing (especially in relation to violence) are many faceted concepts as each of us here have demonstrated in our implied or stated working definitions.

Pinker makes some relative comments in his: A History of Violence. A good short read for those interested in the study of violence beyond the immediate and practical applications. Quote: "The sociologist Norbert Elias suggested that European modernity accelerated a "civilizing process" marked by increases in self-control, long-term planning, and sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others. These are precisely the functions that today's cognitive neuroscientists attribute to the prefrontal cortex."

From your comments I get the feeling that the standard you hold for "civilized" might in some way involve radical evolutionary changes?
Indeed we have advanced quite a bit in some ways and yet stayed true to our natures (how could we not?) and not changed or "improved" them. Whether moving in small patrols around a roughly defined territory to attack with crude blows, tearing, biting and gouging in ambush in order to defend our resource base or annex our that of our "enemies," whose abilities, strategies and motives mirror our own or sending pinpoint accurate million dollar cruise missiles dependent on a vast intricate network of techno-culture halfway around the world to destroy a huddled group of goat herders and poppy thugs whose geopolitical significance to the "civilized" world dwarfs to ridiculousness the physical threat that their clan and chieftan based tribal society impose on us, we are and remain an ape sentient enough to have "issues"...and yet perhaps not capable of reliably recognizing them as such let alone moving beyond them.
I still feel a sense of pride in having served, in the little meaningful volunteering I've done. It may be entirely a response to having proved myself not be a free rider in evolutionary terms, a deep, gut, animal instinct, or it could be a result of the fine sense of patriotism fulfilled and contributing meaningfully to society, or both...

Kami said...

I looked up where our taxes go because I was curious. A news article broke it down for every $1000 of taxes paid, but you can look at the source and do the math yourself if you don't trust a journalist's math at:

I was lazy. According to the article, out of every $1000:
$219.40 went to health care programs (specifically Medicare and Medicaid)
$206.60 goes to social security
$196.50 is military
$122.20 is payments on the deficit
$132.70 is 'income security' (unemployment, nutrition/food banks, housing programs, and retirement for federal employees)
The rest gets into serious small detail.

Military spending doesn't appear to be half our tax dollars unless some other form of math is employed.