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America's Class War

U.S. troops comb an area near the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, March 8, 2004, following an attack by insurgents at a passing U.S. military convoy. No one was reported injured in the attack, which occured shortly before the Iraqi Governing Council signed an interim constitution.
This column from The New Republic was written by Peter Beinart.

There are lots of things to say about last weekend's big pro-choice march in Washington, most of them good. And there are lots of things to say about last weekend's small, anti-World Bank/IMF march, most of them -- to my mind -- bad. But, surely, the most obvious thing to say about both marches is how odd it is that they took place at all, considering the moment. The United States is fighting its largest war since Vietnam. American soldiers are dying virtually every day in a conflict with no end in sight. The prospect of defeat is terrifying and real. And yet, last weekend, Washington echoed with the sound of hardy peacetime perennials. It could easily have been 1999.

The paucity of Americans protesting the war is directly related to the paucity of Americans participating in it. This week, the papers were filled with the heartbreaking story of Pat Tillman, the NFL safety who turned down a $3 million contract to serve in the Army and who eventually gave his life in the mountains of Afghanistan. But Tillman's story is so moving in part because it is so anomalous. In general, the gulf between the military and the rest of American society is wider than it has been for generations. More and more, troops hail from the South and West, and from military families. Minorities, who in 1973 comprised 23 percent of new enlistees, today comprise 37 percent. In 1973, the average soldier served less than two years. Today, that has grown to seven years -- a sign that service is no longer a phase interspersed with civilian life, but, increasingly, an alternative to it. Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver estimates that fewer and fewer civilians know someone in uniform.

In the '90s, sociologists of the military worried about what former Defense Secretary William Cohen called "a chasm developing between the military and civilian worlds." But, in peacetime, the chasm was merely cultural. Today, one segment of American society is at war, and the other, for all intents and purposes, is not. The strain on America's troops, and their families, is almost unprecedented. "I have been in the Army 39 years, and I've never seen the Army as stretched in that 39 years as it is today," Lieutenant General John M. Riggs told The Baltimore Sun earlier this year. But, for civilians, the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism have brought virtually no strain at all. Taxes are down, popular spending programs are up, and Congress has spent the last three years making the roaring '90s look austere. Infringements on civil liberties have been confined largely to immigrants. Yes, Americans have to endure longer lines at the airport -- but civilian society is chafing even at that. Pittsburgh International wants, once again, to allow people without tickets through security in order to boost the airport's ailing shops. Yes, Iraq is a frequent presence on television. But, if you wish, you can simply switch the channel to some other reality show.

Perhaps most worrying, the divide between the America at war and the America at peace has an ugly -- and growing -- class skew. In 1969, 72 percent of congressmen were veterans; today, the number is 29 percent. Of this year's nine Democratic presidential hopefuls, only John Kerry, Richard Gephardt, and Wesley Clark served. And, given how alienated America's elite universities are from the military, those numbers are likely to drop still further. In 1956, the American Enterprise Institute's Christina Hoff Sommers points out, 1,100 Stanford students enrolled in ROTC; today, there are about 30 -- all doing their training off campus because Stanford does not host the program. Between them, the eight Ivy League universities will graduate 24 Army ROTC students this spring. The nation's 23 historically black colleges, by contrast, will graduate 278. According to a recent RAND study, one of the best predictors of whether a high school senior will enlist in the military is the unemployment rate in his or her county.

Given how little the war is impacting their lives, it's hardly surprising that the college students who flocked to Washington this weekend focused their ire on abortion restrictions and the IMF. Campus views about Iraq, 1960s historian Maurice Isserman told The Christian Science Monitor in October 2002, "are probably pretty much like those of 1964" -- before the fighting in Vietnam escalated. But, no matter how long the Iraq war drags on, the absence of a draft means that, on campus, it will always be 1964. In fact, the antiwar movement is arguably weaker today than it was when the war began; Washington has not seen a major Iraq-related protest in six months.

In 1975, James Fallows wrote a famous essay for The Washington Monthly titled, "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?" In it, he recounted taking a bus to the Boston Navy Yard with other Harvard students drafted to serve in Vietnam. Soon after, another bus pulled up, this one filled with draftees from the working-class town of Chelsea. The Harvard students brought medical records carefully manipulated to show they were unfit to serve -- and roughly 80 percent returned to campus "as free individuals, liberated and victorious." The draftees from Chelsea, by contrast, "walked through the examination lines like so many cattle off to the slaughter." Fallows remembers the moment the military doctor wrote "unqualified" on his folder. "I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day."

Fallows's essay is a withering indictment of the generational elite to which he belonged. His peers, he argues, took the easy way out -- neither serving nor accepting jail as a consequence of their refusal to serve -- and thus never applied the political pressure that might have forced an early end to the war. But, harsh as the essay is, it still feels, by current standards, a little quaint. Shame? In the elite America in which I grew up, the military was a distant, self-contained world -- populated by other Americans -- with no conceivable claim on me. And now those other Americans, some my age, are dying halfway across the globe. I may feel sad, even angry, but how can I feel shame when no one ever suggested it should be any different? What did you do in the terror war, daddy? I fear my own answer, in its way, will be even worse.

Peter Beinart is the editor of TNR.

By Peter Beinart