Entry from September 30, 2010

In today’s New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller reports that the Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, in a speech at Duke University, expressed his concern at the gap between the country’s military forces and its people. “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Gates said, are the first protracted large-scale conflicts since the American Revolution fought entirely by volunteers, but with a force of 2.4 million of active and reserve members that is less than 1 percent — the smallest proportion ever — of the population it serves.” Moreover, “the defense secretary said that military recruits came increasingly from the South, the mountain West and small towns, and less often from the Northeast, West Coast and big cities.” Few also come, of course, from such elite institutions as Duke. I myself have written at some length about this problem and would support a return to the draft, which Secretary Gates only hints at. But he doesn’t mention the media, who are as responsible as anybody for ordinary Americans’ estrangement from those who protect them.

Just look at the headline a few pages earlier in the same day’s paper. “Four Suicides in a Week Take a Toll on Fort Hood,” which notes: “So far this year, Army officials have confirmed that 14 soldiers at Fort Hood have committed suicide. Six others are believed to have taken their own lives but a final determination has yet to be made.” We are also reminded that Ft. Hood is where the Muslim Major went on a shooting spree last year and killed 13 fellow soldiers. The story is naturally linked into a long-running series in the Times about soldiers said to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which are pretty much the only kind of soldiers the paper is interested in. Meanwhile, the front page story in the same day’s Washington Post tells of “Grisly allegations against U.S. soldier” — the inspiring story of a Sergeant Calvin Gibbs who is on trial for killing Afghan civilians and dismembering their corpses.

Anyone who reads a daily paper will be familiar with such stories. There are dozens of them for every one about a hero like Specialist Salvatore Giunta who got a mention a couple of weeks ago in both the Times and the Post for being the first living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor since the Vietnam era. That the armed services themselves are being so much stingier in giving out these medals than they have been in past wars suggests that they, too, have been influenced by the media culture for whom our men in uniform only become interesting stories when they are victims or criminals.

There was no Times editorial about Spc. Giunta, but there was one, also today as it happens, that was related to a story a couple of days back about how an Air Force colonel has been successful in getting places in Antarctica and areas more or less adjacent thereunto named for the dogs and ponies of the explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, who were the first to reach the pole in 1912. Here’s the peroration of the Times editorial, on Scott’s ponies:

“Poor patient beasts,” they were called by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a crew member and author of the best account of Scott’s expedition. He wondered what they would remember of sailing through Antarctic waters. “It would seem strangely merciful,” he wrote, “if nature should blot out these weeks of slow but inevitable torture.” Most of us will never fly over those newly named waypoints. But we can call up the photos of the ponies aboard the Terra Nova and marvel at their beauty and acceptance.

The ponies, of course, meet the essential criterion of being not only victims but unwilling ones. Though Scott and two of his companions also died, I suppose that, having brought themselves to what Cherry-Garrard called the Worst Journey on Earth, their victimhood was less pure. But where, I wonder, will readers find such an elegiac note struck on behalf of American heroes? Maybe Secretary Gates could begin to close the gap he deplores by starting the trend himself?

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