Friday, May 04, 2007

Tillson Redux

A full month after the original essay on the Army's mishandling of the account of Corporal Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan appeared on the April 4 online edition of Counterpunch, I am still receiving commentaries.

The latest came May 4th from a service member stationed in Germany. He is worried about his son – currently in high school – who is a recruiter’s dream: in junior ROTC, a very high grade-point average, Eagle Scout, an outstanding athlete in more than one sport. And above all, the young man wants a military career.

The parent, obviously, has been a role model in a profession of service to his country that he made his life’s work. Yet that profession is clearly not the same one that the parent joined some 15-20 years ago (my estimate). He writes: “From what I see with today’s senior leadership I am getting that feeling of doom and parental failure if I turn him over without things improving.”

It is a conundrum for parents, especially for those who are in the military and for all who regard the military as an honorable career. And given the state of international relations, unfortunately it is a necessary one for a society that says it values and encourages individuals to develop their talents and to contribute to the well-being of their community, country, and world.

“Contributing to the community, country, and world” at one time was considered an obligation of each generation to those that followed. In the military, this obligation was encoded in the concept of a “profession” – a group that chooses to set themselves apart in the service of a higher “cause” that goes beyond self-interest.

Numerous commentators over the years have lamented that military service is more and more a “job” and less a “profession.” I suggest that a more significant contrast lies between “occupation” and “profession than “profession” and “job.” The latter word conjures the over-simplistic, prototypical “piece work” or “piece of work” repeated day after day (as on an assembly line) by a worker who puts in his or her “9-to-5” and then, when the factory whistle sounds, goes home to family, dinner, and bed – until retirement.

One who has an occupation remains identified with her or his work even when not “in” the office or “at” the factory. What sets an occupation apart from a profession is that the latter requires “special training” in the liberal arts or sciences. In its original sense, this extra training was a form of “sacrifice” insofar as it delayed entry into the economic marketplace – one that over time would accrue greater recompense to the professional than a mere “occupation” would bring. With the organization of fire brigades and police departments, the scope of the sacrifice shifted from delayed market-based compensation to potentially one’s life.

There is nothing dishonorable or “wrong” with plying an “occupation” successfully. In fact, the most successful are lauded precisely for what they accomplish, not for any ancillary “sacrifice” that might or might not be evident. Moreover, when many individuals in a community are successful in their chosen occupations, the cumulative effect provides collateral benefits for the wider society.

Somewhere along the way, however, the sense of obligation or duty that infused and transformed certain occupations into professions was tossed overboard by too many “leaders.” The damage from this abandonment of professionalism and the ethic that flowed from it – whether based on religious faith or secular humanism – was so severe that those with little or no connection with the armed forces could not help but question the integrity of those to whom the country entrusted its sons and daughters as hostages to fortune and fate.

In a perverse way, the very technology that enables killing an armed opponent who is still “over-the-horizon” insulates a significant segment of the armed forces from the danger to limb and life that has been the hallmark “sacrifice” of military service. The result is a reductionism of the military profession to a job – not in the sense of a 9-to-5 work pattern but in the mental distancing that regards a missile launched at or a bomb dropped “successfully” on an inanimate “target” (the counterpart to “piece work”) as due diligence for which reasonable compensation is due. Conversely, in that the soldier and Marine who “closes with” an enemy have to undergo specialized training to learn how to be part of an efficient multi-person killing unit, they come closest in high-tech warfare to the “professional.”

The problem this raises, at least in theory, is that those who close with an enemy – the battle-wise professionals who have personal knowledge of warfare from sustained combat – are also the ones most exposed to death or wounding from enemy counteraction. When one adds the battle-experienced who resign from the service or retire as soon as they are eligible for a pension (20 years service) to the number killed or discharged because of their wounds, the pool of those eligible for senior positions is titled numerically against those who really “know” war -- and would be more inclined to resist repeating the carnage that every war entails -- and towards those for whom past wars were more of a "bloodless" occupation.

I do not believe nor do I wish to imply that the reductionism described above, if it occurs, is calculated or even conscious. But it does seem to pervade the military and the general government more than it used to (even as I readily concede that the military, as with any other profession, undoubtedly has had within its ranks in the past less than honorable members).

How else does one explain the comment by my May 4 correspondent that his son’s “desire to enter this military is the sum of a parent’s sense of doom.”

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