book reviews, Military

Repost: a review of AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Class From the Military and How It Hurts Our Country

Just because I’m on a Frank Schaeffer roll, here’s another mostly as/is review of a book of his that I read and reviewed for Epinions.com. This one was originally posted in May 2008.

Those of you who regularly read my book reviews may know that I am the wife of an Army officer and the daughter of a retired Air Force officer. I have always had a great respect for the military and the people who choose to be a part of it. My husband is one of the smartest people I know. He never had much money when he was growing up, but he did a stint in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) in high school. That led him to earn military scholarships for college, a commission, and eventually, an international relations degree from American University. Later, again through the military, he went on to earn a master’s degree (ETA: in 2021, he has two master’s degrees, courtesy of the U.S Army).

For over thirty years, Bill has proudly enjoyed serving his country in the military. He has told me on more than one occasion that he has always felt led to serve his country; it is his vocation. The military has been very good to Bill, but I wonder if he would have considered it a career choice had he grown up more economically privileged? In their 2006 book, AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Class From the Military and How It Hurts Our CountryFrank Schaeffer and Kathy Roth-Douquet explore the absence of America’s elite from military service.

Schaeffer and Roth-Douquet could both be considered members of the upper class. Schaeffer was raised in Switzerland by two very famous protestant church leaders. He is now a successful author. Roth-Douquet hails from an upper-middle class Jewish neighborhood and was educated at exclusive private schools. She later went on to serve in President Clinton’s White House. Neither one of them ever expected that one day, they would consider the absence of America’s upper classes from military service. Schaeffer had a negative opinion of military service until his son, John, decided to join the Marines back in 1999. Roth-Douquet found herself exposed to the military when she married her husband, a career Marine officer. Neither Schaeffer nor Roth-Douquet has ever served in the military themselves.

The absence of the so-called “elite”

These two people, who once seemed so unlikely to rub elbows with the men and women who serve in the United States military, noticed that nowadays, America’s all volunteer military mostly consists of people from the lower and middle economic classes. They also noticed that the people making policy decisions involving the military often come from the upper classes; yet, policymakers often have no actual experience with the military. Relying on their combined exposure to the military and their experiences as elite members of society, the two authors point out why people from the elite class should reconsider the decision not to serve their country in the military.

There was a time when military service was expected of the elite. Nowadays, it seems the elite are hellbent on keeping themselves and their children out of the military. They go as far as trying to ban military recruiters from high schools and college campuses and actively discouraging their children when they express an interest in a military career. The attitude seems to be, “We support the military, as long as whatever it does doesn’t involve anyone we care about.” Many elite members of society have no trouble sticking a “Support our troops” magnet on their SUVs, but they are not willing to go as far as volunteering to join the people they so ardently claim to support. Indeed, Schaeffer and Roth-Douquet discuss some of the groups that want to ban military recruiters from talking to their kids and their official reasons for doing so.

Not In My Backyard! Leave My Kid Alone!

As I read this book, I felt as though the authors were preaching to the choir. I have, after all, spent my whole life around military people who have been happy to serve. I have also had some exposure to the so-called academic ivory tower, having spent seven years earning three college degrees. I also spent two years serving in the Peace Corps, a government organization with decidedly liberal leanings. I understand the arguments the elite classes have against joining the military.

As Schaeffer and Roth-Douquet point out in their well researched book, a lot of privileged people simply don’t see the military as a viable option for themselves when they could earn much higher salaries and enjoy more a more comfortable lifestyle opting for a well paid position at a Fortune 500 company or a prestigious law firm. Some people argue that military service is not worthwhile because servicemembers are forced to be involved in causes that they don’t consider just or good. Others see military service as too dangerous. While they want to see our country protected from enemies, they would rather someone else’s child be the one to shed blood, sweat, and tears in the effort. According to Schaeffer and Roth-Douquet, the attitude seems to be that they have more important, cleaner work to do.

I think one of the best points made in AWOL is the fact that we as a society have become overprotective of our children. We stop holding them accountable for their successes and failures because we hate to see them get hurt or experience disappointment. As a result, to many people, the military seems much too dangerous and risky for their sons and daughters. And yet, we as a society are also literally becoming soft and flabby. As Schaeffer points on on pages 162 and 163,

…the civilians sent to boot camp these days leave much to be desired. Many arrive having no idea how to work in a team, how to shoulder responsibility, or how to put other people first… When it comes to physical fitness, fewer young men and women who volunteer each year can do what most young volunteers could do just a generation ago.

On page 163, Schaffer then quotes an Army Ranger, who said,

Parents are always telling me they worry about their kid being killed in a war. But there are going to be a lot more American twenty-year-olds dying of diabetes than get killed in Iraq. When I see the shape these kids are in [at boot camp], I want to tell the parents the safest place for your kids is in my platoon!

As distasteful as that revelation might be for someone who has actually lost someone in a war, I think the Army Ranger may be, sadly, quite correct, if not now, then in the near future. Diabetes and other obesity related illnesses are affecting American young people at an alarming rate. At least in the military, they would be required to get and stay in somewhat decent physical shape and maintain their health through regular physicals and check ups.

Seeing Soldiers as Victims

AWOL includes an interesting discussion about the media’s affect on the military’s image. Frank Schaeffer received a letter from a military chaplain who happened to catch an article written by columnist Andy Rooney. The article, written on April 12, 2004, was entitled “Our Soldiers In Iraq Aren’t Heroes”. In it, Rooney basically paints servicemembers as victims who need to be rescued from the big, bad government. Schaeffer quotes Rooney’s article thusly on page 156,

…We pin medals on their chest to keep them going. We speak of them as if they volunteered to risk their lives to save ours, but there isn’t much voluntary about what most of them have done… many young people, desperate for some income, enlisted… in the National Guard or the Army Reserve to pick up some extra money and never thought they’d be called on to fight… Most are victims, not heroes…

The chaplain wrote a very intelligent response to Rooney that proved that he, at least, did not see himself as a victim. The chaplain reminded Rooney that to call him and his comrades “victims” was to rob them of their own accountability for their decision to serve and responsibility for their own actions. In short, Rooney’s attitude, which seems to be popularly shared by the news media and people in show business, really makes the men and women who choose military service out to be children who need to be protected from themselves, rather than the brave professionals that they actually are.

It may be true that some people join the military because they need the money or they have nowhere else to go, but the vast majority of the servicemembers I’ve met have been proud of what they do. It does seem unfair that so many people in the military are from the lower to middle classes. Their options may not be as expansive as those available to the elite, but the military does offer them a place where they can learn how to handle awesome responsibility at a young age. It also offers a place where they don’t necessarily have to “know someone” in order to get ahead. And, as Schaeffer points out, at least everybody in the military, from the lowest to highest ranking, has the same access to health care. The same cannot be said of a person who works at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s.

Solutions

Frank Schaeffer and Kathryn Roth-Douquet do have ideas for solving the problem of so many people passing on military service. I thought it was interesting to see that they each had their own ideas and presented them separately. Schaeffer believes that the United States should come up with a new type of draft system that requires everyone to do some kind of service to their country, whether it be through the military, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or something similar. Roth-Douquet, by contrast, feels that conscription is too impractical and expensive. She believes that we must simply ask the elite to serve. I will comment that as a former Peace Corps Volunteer, I noticed that many of my colleagues already represented the elite class. I don’t think the Peace Corps, in particular, has that much trouble attracting the elite to service. However, I personally don’t think the same could be said for AmeriCorps and it certainly cannot be said for the military, as is well documented in this book.

My overall impressions…

I enjoyed reading AWOL, as I generally enjoy reading all of Frank Schaeffer’s books. He is very opinionated and unabashed about his thoughts, even at the risk of being offensive or seeming short-sighted. It was interesting to read his joint effort with Kathy Roth-Douquet. For the most part, I agree with what they have to say, even though they do seem to use a lot of anecdotes to get their message to the masses.

That said, I don’t think everyone will agree with what these authors have to say. A lot of people think they have good reasons for not serving their country. Some people actually do have good reasons for not serving. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to see the draft come back because I think people should have a choice as to whether or not they want to serve. I think those who do make the choice to serve will be better suited to doing the job, and that will make people like my husband safer.

In any case, I certainly enjoyed reading this book and am glad to see that its authors, themselves members of the elite class who never chose to be a part of the armed forces, have at least learned something from their loved ones who did. I will recommend it to anyone who wants some food for thought regarding the military and the people who make the choice to serve.

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