A few days ago, a combat reporter for whom I have the greatest respect, wrote about the barbarity, perversion and pain of war.
As a journalist, Chris Hedges has covered more combat in the past 20 years than many of his critics whose only exposure to combat has been in the flag-waving, John Waynesque online chat rooms and forums. He has covered the Balkans, Central America, Africa and the Middle East, where he was the bureau chief for the New York Times. He also was on that paper’s team who won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage on global terrorism. He knows war; he runs to the front lines with a pencil and paper. He has seen death and faced it himself. He has the credentials to write and speak about war.
In his latest piece for the Boston Review, titled “War is a Betrayal: Persistent Myths About War”, Hedges writes, “War is venal, noisy, frightening, and dirty. The military is a vast bureaucratic machine fueled by hyper-masculine fantasies and arcane and mind-numbing rules. War is always about betrayal — betrayal of the young by the old, of idealists by cynics, and of soldiers and Marines by politicians.”
His points are begrudgingly acknowledged by many who have served. It is the 21st century version of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s speech in 1880 when he told a crowd of 10,000, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”
But Hedges’ thoughts are addressed to a civilian audience; one that has never served. And that is where he derails himself as he moves away from a reflection on the horrors of war, to one that panders to an “I’ve-already-made-up-mind” crowd. Instead of educating his readers about national policy of making war, he uses service members as one-dimensional stereotypes to indulge himself and his readers who are either antiwar or pacifists.
He meanders with disjointed interviews of downtrodden troops to make his point, that these hapless souls who come from the poor and working class, had no alternative but to join the military.
“The poor embrace the military because every other cul-de-sac in their lives breaks their spirit and their dignity,” Hedges writes. He ingratiates himself to the readers of the “Nation” and other alternative publications by feeding them the notion that only uneducated poor people are fighting the wars for the elite.
How wrong he is about the men and women who made a decision to join the military. Hedges cherry-picked the people to portray who fit into his square hole. That is not the norm as I have experienced. Indeed it is just the opposite.
I have interviewed hundreds of service members in my 20 years of covering the military. I’ve interviewed them when they were in training, going through exercises and on deployment in the Gulf. But I come away with a different opinion of who these people are, and where they come from, and why they joined. I write based on facts, not ideology.
Here are the facts: Those who join the military are better educated than the average American, and come from across the entire socio-economic scale of this country.
The U.S. Census Bureau shows that 87 percent of Americans have a high school diploma or equivalent. That’s lower than the recruits going into the military who 97 percent of them have attained at least a high school diploma or higher.
Analysis done by the Pentagon and independent sources show only 7.01 percent of the recruits come from the lowest socio-economic segment of our country. The same is true about those who come from the richest families; 7.24 percent of America’s privileged youth willingly volunteer.
The rest of the recruits come from the lower-middle class, the middle class and the upper-middle class in just about equal numbers. In other words, they are us.
In the early years of the Iraq War, the military raised the recruitment age from 35 to 42 in order to quickly bring in more qualified people. In April 2011 they reduced the recruitment age back to 35, saying they had better-qualified citizens now joining the services.
Hedges also is wrong with his stereotypical notion that recruits are coming from Podunk small towns of rural America. The facts show the contrary. Eighty-one percent of new recruits come from metropolitan areas.
Then what about the poor people he says embrace the military because their spirit and dignity is broken? Unfortunately, Hedges has allowed his elitist upbringing, and working too long at elitist publications to cloud reality.
“I joined to get my college paid for,” many of them told me. “I like guns,” a female petty officer said. “I’m making it a career,” others said. “I want to serve my country,” many said. Over and over again this is what I heard. These are not the voices of broken-spirited people. There is a vibrancy of patriotism, can-do attitude, and walking with one’s head held high that mark the people who join the military.
The debate whether to go to war and expose our youth to shattered limbs, ungodly hells on the frontlines and in the minds, and lack of political will once the shooting begins, is best done when the 99 percent of Americans who have never served are fully informed of the ramifications of doing war. Hedges blinds his readership for the sake of ideology, and leaves service members without a segment of America’s support. Hedges is entitled to write what he wants, but he is not entitled to skew the facts just because they don’t fit his view of the world.