Bearing the Burden: The Moral Cost of a Professional Army

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In the century that followed the birth of the Roman Empire under Augustus, the Imperial Roman Army transformed itself into the world’s first standing army, and with it the finest professional fighting force the world had yet known. For the soldiers that stood guard on the Empire’s frontiers life wasn’t easy. Terms of service were twenty-five years. Soldiers were forbidden from marrying. Postings were remote. But the training, experience, and unit cohesion of professionalized legions ensured Rome would have no peer on the battlefield.

A Roman army that during the previous five hundred years had relied on citizen levies in times of crisis to bolster the ranks became a culture unto itself, the institution and its soldiers ever more distant from citizens at the empire’s core. Forced to fend off barbarian tribes on the periphery and push into new territory, the army found that most of the soldiers willing to endure the long terms of service and harsh conditions were rural peasants from the frontiers themselves. An army whose Italian soldiers numbered over ninety percent during Augustus’s time barely counted ten percent among their cohort a hundred years later.

Upon finishing their terms of service, the vast majority of soldiers found themselves unable to shed their outsider status. Most soldiers were forced to settle on or near the same frontiers they guarded, the land grants given upon their discharge far from Rome. Equipped with citizenship and having been exposed to Roman values, these veterans were often used as colonizers. Many times their sons would find their way into the ranks. With the exception of the aristocratic officers heading the legions, relatively few soldiers would ever visit the Italian lands from which policy, money, and culture emanated.

Two millennia on, the Roman Imperial Army has found its reflection in the United States’ armed forces. Over a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has forged a professional fighting force whose excellence is unparalleled in world history. We can whisk brigades around the world in a matter of hours, supply whole armies with the creature comforts of home, and snuff out terrorists at the push of a button. But the cost of this excellence, in the form of the burdens placed on the soldiers both at war and upon their return, is compounding with each passing year.

The last ten years has not lacked for reporting and commentary on the burdens shouldered by “the other one percent” – members of the armed services and veterans – or the resultant civilian-military gap. Even casual observers of our nation’s foreign wars have likely read a piece or two in the popular press. Time devoted their cover to it a little over a year ago. Yet the journalism and opinioneering is often conducted piecemeal and on the periphery, focusing on things like repeat deployments, civilian oversight, wounded veterans, civil-military relations, and veteran suicide and unemployment. Statistics are cited. Senior officials quoted. Individuals are profiled. 60 Minutes tells the story of Clay Hunt’s suicide. Esquire finds it outrageous that the Navy SEAL who killed Bin Laden can’t find a job. Veterans are valorized and irreproachable, but at the same time held at arms length.

Conspicuously absent, though, is the very thing that is needed most: a broader debate over whether the moral cost of having a professional army continuously at war is acceptable. On this count the military, government, and society itself have answered unequivocally in the affirmative. There is no serious talk of returning to the draft. The urban and best educated among us are not choosing to join up in greater numbers (in fact, the opposite is true). War has become, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “something for other people to do.” Society has made its choice. But only now are the consequences of that choice coming home to roost.

A new collection of short fiction, Fire and Forget, edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton and written by veterans (and one Army wife), stands as the best fictional account of the wars of the last decade and the contemporary military experience, and as such, is utterly damning of the devil’s bargain the nation and its military have entered into. Unlike any other book yet published, fiction or non-fiction, Fire and Forget captures the grim moral price of having a select few fight years overseas, only to return to a society that is unable to relate to their experience or sacrifice. (Full disclosure: I know some of the vets in this collection; the community of veteran writers is exceedingly small.)

Fire and Forget is not a collection of war stories in the classic sense; here combat plays only a tertiary role, if any at all, and only six of the fifteen stories even take place in Iraq or Afghanistan. The biting and brutal focus is instead more often on the soldiers’ return home, sometimes scarred, both physically and emotionally, but always changed. In Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” two maimed soldiers share a day of flyfishing as part of a program for wounded soldiers, only for one to accost a pair of teenage girls with the shocking cost of war. Colby Buzzell’s “Play the Game” has a veteran take a job as a streetside sign-holder in Los Angeles as he lives a “temporary,” novocained existence. And in Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips For a Smooth Transition” an army wife confronts the awkwardness of rekindling a marriage put on hold during her husband’s deployment.

On a purely aesthetic level, one is reminded in many of the stories that we are dealing with emerging writers, ones whose control of their craft is sometimes uneven. Ill-placed metaphors, clunky exposition, pacing issues, and dream sequences all rear their head. And stylistically these are a uniform bunch, with only a few slipping outside the bounds of a stripped-down realism. Yet these flaws seldom detract from what counts: the myriad truths each of these stories contain, all of which feel fresh, raw, and vital. It is a rare thing for a book to live up to its blurb, but E.L. Doctorow got it right when he called this a “necessary” collection. Much of the credit lies with the editors, whose curation, in terms of content and tone, is impeccable.

Two stories in particular stand out. Ted Janis’s “Raid” is like a panther – lean, dark, and stealthy in its import. Method matches up perfectly with material in its story of a Special Forces soldier conducting one in a seemingly endless chain of Afghanistan night raids. Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” is the masterpiece of the collection. It grabs you by the lapels with its opening line – “We shot dogs” – and by the end you’re thoroughly shaken. Klay’s tale of a soldier’s tumor-ridden dog and his Marine battalion’s return home from Iraq contains more in its thirteen pages about contemporary war and its effects on the people who fight it than anything I’ve read.

One comes away from the collection struck by the weariness and cynicism and alienation that suffuses these pages. There is nothing overtly political about any of the stories, but as a body they make a political statement: war, when waged, must be a cost borne by the nation as a whole. America has over the last decade outsourced war to its military. At a recent forum, former Afghanistan commander General Stanley McCrystal suggested reinstituting the draft because “right now, there’s a sense that if you want to go to war, you just send the military. They’re not us.” Fire and Forget reminds “us” who “they” are.

There is no easy answer to the central dilemma here. A professional army is without question more efficient and effective at maintaining security, protecting American interests, and fighting the country’s wars than an army raised for exigent circumstances. Yet during war, especially prolonged war, only through the draft does the populace as a whole have skin in the game.

Alas, this is a debate that won’t be had. The war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan is winding down. In two years time the army will take leave of the frontiers and return to its garrisons. Left in its wake will be a generation of veterans bearing the scars of war who will stand apart from the peers, theirs an experience limited to a self-selecting few. Like the Roman soldiers before them, many joined for a job, others out of patriotism, but all to serve their country.

Jill Lepore, writing in the New Yorker a few months ago, pressed home the fact that the United States was founded on opposition to a standing army. A citizen army, the reasoning went, composed from the whole swath of society and raised only in times of duress would be less likely to be wielded as a tyrannical instrument, both at home and abroad, since the whole society would bear the cost of its wielding. But conscript armies, while potent for fighting large-scale wars, are less efficacious when policing the world.

As Augustus comprehended in the aftermath of the Roman Civil Wars, the geopolitical reality required new methods if he was to be successful. For two centuries his professional legions stood guard on the hinterlands, fighting wars both just and unjust, protecting a citizenry that knew little of their sacrifice. The United States crossed the Rubicon in 1973 when it converted the military to a professional force; but only now, in the aftermath of exhausting war, has the moral price of that decision become evident. We have created a caste of warriors – one but apart, taxed but unbroken – to insulate us from the storms of the world. Such are the costs of Empire.