The Old Use the Young to Wage War: “Thank You Sir, May I Have Another?”
MILITARISM, 9 Jan 2023
24 Dec 2022 – If you were a 19-year-old North American male and not yet in the military, you probably would remember exactly where you were in the late afternoon of December 1, 1969. Your military call-up fate was about to be determined through a lottery pick and ceremoniously revealed on national TV. The war in Vietnam was still hot and the armed forces needed young US bodies to sustain it.
If you were a healthy young Russian male in September of 2022 and not yet in the military, you abruptly realized you’d soon be elsewhere and probably not where you really wished to be. On September 21, your future was rerouted when President Putin announced his “partial” military conscription plan to the country. The war in Ukraine was still hot and the armed forces needed young Russian bodies to sustain it.
Decades apart, young Americans and young Russians were being told to step forward and serve their country. It was time for them to put their lives on the line, not to repel the military forces of a foreign invader, but for they themselves, to become the invaders and occupiers of a foreign land. In each of the above examples, a nation’s senior leadership was caught up in faulty and self-serving decision-making that could not comfortably be walked back. To do so would have admitted incompetence or malfeasance. Young Americans and young Russians were being told to kill and die, not to protect their country, but to provide cover for the ineptitude, the immorality, and the ambitions of their elder leaders.
It’s a common means of procuring the bodies required to meet a nation’s military needs, but conscription is not the only way. The last United States military draft was almost 50 years ago (1973), yet it has maintained sufficient manpower to carry out involvement in more than 20 armed conflicts since then (including major and long-lasting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). For the last half century, appeals to patriotism, the lure of adventure, and the offer of educational assistance or career development have provided ample incentive to sustain a voluntary influx of young bodies into the country’s armed forces.
Whether satisfied through conscription or by invitation, the need never changes: young warm bodies are required to populate the militaries that protect and/or expand upon a nation’s influence and its borders. To that end, a nation’s young are both essential and expendable. When armed conflicts arise, the young of one nation meet the young of another nation in battle and attempt to turn each other into cold dead bodies. One nation ultimately proves more successful than the other and expects to be rewarded with favorable recognition of physical borders, political/economic influence, or international prestige. The expended young, the ones that became cold dead bodies in the endeavor, are rewarded with ceremonious farewells and perhaps honorific grave sites. Both nations then move on and the cold dead bodies are replaced with warm living bodies that will be essential and expendable in the next confrontation.
It’s not the young who choose or strategize a nation’s confrontations. The young are little more than pawns in an elder’s game plan, a plan conducted far afield from the violence that it precipitates. Generally, there’s a hierarchy of decision making and implementation that’s reflective of age, power, and proximity to battle. The youngest and most expendable are put closest to bodily danger and furthest from the cerebral decision-making that put them there. The hierarchy resembles something like this: a 20-year-old private is positioned by a 25-year-old lieutenant, who is overseen by a 30-year-old captain, who is commanded by a 50-year-old colonel, who implements the strategy of a 60-year-old general, who executes the will of a 70-year-old president, king, or dictator, etc. The young are compelled by the old, and the oldest are furthest from physical violence. From far away, young lives are reduced to statistical relevance and become the expendable pawns in a political or military gambit. When their bodies are sent home, much pageantry may be made of their bravery and patriotism, but a cold and brutal fact remains: they are dead. If the gambit is deemed successful, the elderly decision makers live on and are eulogized. If unsuccessful, they will still likely live on, albeit perhaps with some tarnished prestige. But all is not lost to them: they are alive.
Were it not for the aggressor, there would be no war. In any given war, at least one of the participants is an aggressor; at least one party makes a conscious decision to initiate the violent confrontation that will sacrifice human life to achieve a dubious outcome; at least one party is willing to spend the lives of its young soldiers on the purchase of a perceived advantage. The advantage gained (if gained at all) is often idealistic, materialistic, and/or self-serving.
Amidst the mishmash of border and alliance disputes that precipitated WWI, England was the first to formally declare war in 1914. It meant that young men with rifles would be used to present final arguments for the disputants. All told, the lives of about 10 million young soldiers were expended in arguing the cases of their elder decision makers. As in any war, death wasn’t confined to just soldiers; there were also about 10 million civilian lives laid to waste in the battles that finally ended in 1918. Two decades later (1939) WWII began and lasted six years before the last truce was signed (1945). It directly took the lives of more than 20 million young soldiers and nearly 30 million civilians.
There was even more carnage to come after 1945, so much more that the millions upon millions of sacrificed lives since then are little more than a blurred statistic. Amidst and after the World Wars there were revolutionary battles taking place in China, and from 1950 to 1953 came the Korean War. As that war cooled, Vietnam became the next showcase for military violence: for twenty years (until 1975) young soldiers were sent to kill one another over the ideologies (and ambitions) of their elders. It goes on and on and all over the world: Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and the Americas; no continent is free of war. In every war, the young of an aggressor nation are sent to kill and die for the ideals and appetites of their elder leaders.
Perhaps it doesn’t really end at all. Nations merely pause for a while and then affix a new name to the latest cycle of what amounts to continuous warfare. And why should it ever end? There’s no compelling reason for it stop; the decision makers, the elder statesmen that initiate war have access to the one essential resource that makes perpetual war possible: a renewable supply of expendable young bodies. Every year a new adolescent crop comes of age, and for some, the grooming actually begins earlier. The Pentagon sponsors Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp (JROTC) classes in high schools (as many as 3,500) throughout the United States. Children as young as 14 are eased into the military decorum that will facilitate their eventual introduction into the country’s armed forces.
Coming of age begins a transitional period of vulnerability. It’s a time of social and psychological uncertainty. One is letting go of childhood connections while reaching for adult securities. It’s a nearly adult stage of life before the attainment of economic or political empowerment. The youthfully vibrant, but unconnected young thus present a useful and available commodity to the older, the connected, and the powerful. Like the disenfranchised minority of a racist society, a nation’s young populace can be used and abused – and so they are.
It’s not as if the nations of the world have complete disregard for their young or an unbridled enthusiasm for self-destruction. At least in its near aftermath, most nations do seem to see the tragedy of war. In recognition, international attempts have been made to diffuse the warring confrontations that arise between countries. The League of Nations was formed after WWI to prevent future wars, but it didn’t prevent WWII. The United Nations was created after that war, but the world has seen about 150 wars since then. There’s probable reason for the failure of such international peacekeeping organizations: the structures are designed by the same power-holders that perpetuate war, and those same entities choose delegates that will preserve their interests. The top-weighted power balance of the current UN body doesn’t effectively preempt warfare at all. Its operational structure is prudently set up to allow for “excusable” wars when initiated or sanctioned by its most dominant members.
In lieu of international failures, scores of organizations beyond government venue have attempted to promote a more peaceful planet. Most hold war and violence to be unjustified and members admirably adhere to that ideal. Just like government sponsored international attempts however, grassroots anti-war entities show little success in preventing war. Perhaps there’s a reason: while an unconditional ant-war and anti-violence message is laudable, it comes with pacifist undertones that fail to resonate in a lot of ears. Simply put, there are not a whole lot of people who are ready or willing to unilaterally renounce all war and violence. The world is still a place where violence “with cause” is condoned and even venerated. The war in Ukraine provides vivid example: in response to a military assault, young (and not so young) Ukrainian defenders are popularly lionized as they attempt to repel and kill young Russian invaders.
It’s this human willingness to defend and protect that expedites the formation of militaries. And in war or in peacetime, it’s a nation’s young who are called upon to step forward and offer their willingness. Many readily volunteer to do so, and even if conscripted, there’s usually little resistance. Some regard service as a patriotic duty and/or a rite of passage. Some see it as an educational or career opportunity. Some sign up because there’s no viable alternative. Whatever the motive, it doesn’t matter how one comes to step forward. Once in, the operational dynamic is the same for all: relinquishment of selfhood and adoption of group identity. A “brother in arms” code is nurtured and individual initiative is surrendered to manipulation from above. The young who have availed themselves to patriotic duty are groomed to resemble automatons. Autonomy, or discretionary thought, is reserved for the decision-makers, the elders who declare and manage war. The willingness of a nation’s young to give up selfhood, to give up their very lives, ostensibly to protect their country, is both laudable and exploitable. It’s why we have the current war in Ukraine. It’s why we have all wars.
There’s an absurd aspect to the initiation of war. The invaded country will likely experience death and destruction on a grand scale, but it won’t be all one-sided; the invader will also experience death and destruction. The absurdity is that nothing much will be gained from the effort; death and destruction await both parties with no appreciable gain to be had even by the aggressor (unless genocide and/or permanent occupation/colonization is the gainful plan). Be they simply misguided or truly malfeasant, aggressive leaders send their expendable young to kill and die for dubious causes that might lend some ephemeral advantage (economic, political, egotistical) to a select few, but that’s all. For everyone else there’s nothing, nothing of value will be realized by anyone. In the wars just alluded to, the lives of ordinary citizens in the U.S. did not benefit from the invasions/occupations of Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. The lives of ordinary people in Russia have certainly not benefited from the invasion of Ukraine. With nothing meaningful to be gained, the lives of a nation’s unconnected citizens are appropriated to actualize the endeavors of its misguided decision-makers. It’s a nation’s expendable young soldiers that will be called upon to kill and die for the banal needs of a few exploitative leaders. The few who are already powerful might get to feel a little more powerful; the few who are already wealthy might get to feel a little wealthier. Or, they might not. Either way, millions get to die.
Pick any war: WWII, Vietnam, Iraq, Ukraine, or another. In any armed conflict the young soldiers of opposing armies are much alike. They each have given up selfhood in service to country or creed. They each are following orders from above. The young of both armies are killing and dying for their home country, but one side is deemed laudable while the other is deplorable. One side is defending while the other is invading. The young invading soldiers are seen as deplorable because their violence serves ambition rather than need. They’ve “allowed” themselves to be used as the lethal pawns of a deplorable leader’s avarice. But they are the same; the young of both armies are caught up in the same military dynamic; they are following orders.
From inside, there’s little chance of affecting those orders. Military efficiency is predicated on adherence to its hierarchy of authority. Upon entering, consequential voice and self-determination are relinquished. Once in, following orders is the modus operandi and the path of least resistance. The orders that direct immediate action come from inside, but the guiding path from which they emanate (be it laudable or deplorable) is determined by decision makers on the outside.
So, if the young of a nation wish to have some determination in the use of their bodies, if the young who patriotically put their lives on the line for their country, if the young wish to have any input on what they will be directed to kill or die for, it needs to be voiced from outside, before they avail themselves. From inside, the young are essential, but already muted; from outside, they still have some voice. Before entering, the young retain some capacity to declare and delimit the path they will follow on the inside. From outside, they can stipulate the conditions under which they will step forward to kill and die. Because they are essential to the path that will be laid out before them, from outside, their collective voice has the possibility of affecting its course.
It’s more possible now than it ever has been in the history of the world. Connectivity facilitates united action; the people of the world are presently more connected than in any prior time. This is especially true for the young; never before has the possibility of their united action been more attainable and more potentially profound than it is today. While having little economic force, and only latent political power, the young of a nation are nevertheless its essential means of sustenance. Nowhere is this more palpable than in our militaries; the armed forces have a continuous and vital need for their young replaceable bodies. Through today’s connectivity, the young of a nation have the power to exploit that need and thereby precondition the use of their essential, but expendable bodies. Acting together, the young have the ability to countervail the exploitation of misguided and self-serving leaders. With their united voice, a nation’s young can protect themselves, their country, and the world from the violence of an unnecessary war.
Envision a “Patriotic Defender’s Registry” for the young (or not so young) of military age. The registry certifies a signer who is willing to step forward in service to country, but with stipulation: while he or she will wholeheartedly support and defend their country and its allies from attack by foreign entities, they will not avail themselves should their country or its allies choose to violently intrude upon a foreign land. The registry would be in the public domain, visible to all (recruiters would be aware of a recruit’s stipulation). Consider the possibility of such a registry being popularly acclaimed and celebrated to the extent of acquiring critical mass. A nation’s leadership and its militaries would be compelled to consider the prudence of initiating an aggressive conflict that would be resisted by a significant portion of the personnel needed to sustain it. Be it successful in its endeavor, a registry would protect more than a nation’s youth. If a compelling number of young patriotic defenders said, “No, not for this war of aggression. I will not let you use my body for this kind war,” it would shield a nation’s leaders from acting on their own worst proclivities. Egregious acts of ineptitude and malfeasance would be averted; a nation and the world would be spared the atrocious violence of a senseless war.
It won’t be a trouble-free declaration by the registry’s signatories, especially early on. Before attaining critical mass in nations where service is voluntary, military recruiters will simply pass them by, putting potential military careers and educational opportunities out of reach. When and where service is mandatory, signees will likely face discipline, ostracism, harassment, or the smudge of a “dishonorable” discharge. Some might be subjected to violence, perhaps even the ultimate violence. As a “Patriotic Defender’s Registry” becomes more salient and threatening, it will be publicly derided as the effort of over-zealous and unpatriotic activists. In capitalist countries the registry will be maligned as a socialist or communist tool; in socialist countries it will be labeled a capitalist conspiracy; in theocratic countries it will declared blasphemous. But it’s always that way; a movement that threatens the status quo of an existing power structure is first mischaracterized and then deemed dangerous to the common good. A registry will be dangerous, but not to the common good. It will be dangerous only to the craving of a nation’s leadership for unfettered power – and the history of the world shows the relationship between unfettered power and idiotic wars. Against the possible repercussions that might befall a signatory, the current and possible future reality ought to be kept in mind.
Current reality is this: An enlistee or conscript obeys orders or is disciplined. The orders might entail the defense of one’s home country, or they might demand participation in the invasion of a foreign country. A recruit might kill and die for a laudable cause, or he might kill and die for a deplorable cause. If for defense, a recruit puts his life on the line while killing other human beings to safeguard his country and to protect its citizens. If for an invasion, a recruit puts his life on the line while killing other human beings to fulfill the ambitions of a senior decision-maker. In plain language, by initiating an unwarranted invasion, an older and powerful leader transforms the body of a younger and powerless underling into an expendable murder weapon simply to feel a little more impressive and powerful. So, in lieu of this reality, what will really be lost to an individual who pledges to defend one’s country while refusing to take part in an unjustified invasion? What will really be lost to a nation who’s essential and expendable young defenders have the wherewithal to resist the ill-advised and self-serving dictates of a senior decision-maker?
And what might be gained? Well, it could be quite a lot: an idiotic war might be averted, the essential and expendable youth of a nation might not be needlessly expended, millions of civilian lives might be saved, and the destruction of a nation’s infrastructure and natural environment might be avoided.
“With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.” Oscar Wilde’s wry observation highlights an obvious truth: age alone does not confer wisdom or any other desirable trait. The powerful and elderly decision-makers of the world demonstrate the disconnect between age and wisdom with every war. The powerful are apt to be elderly, but they are not more apt to be wise. Were it otherwise, there would not now be this need for the young to step forward and say, “No, not for this war of aggression. I will not let you use my body for this kind war.” Is there a better time for the young, the essential, and the expendable to take that step forward?
Vern Loomis graduated from Michigan State University in 1972 with a degree in psychology. He bounced around for a couple of years, then began an unrelated career in the field of architectural engineering from which he retired in 2018. He uses some of his newly found free time to pursue an old interest in writing. Thus far it’s been political/social commentaries on publications including The Dissident Voice, Counterpunch, and The Humanist. He lives in southeast Michigan with his wife and daughter.
Tags: Anti-militarism, Hegemony, Imperialism, Military, Military Industrial Media Complex, Pentagon, Russia, USA, Ukraine, War Economy, Wisdom
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Jan 2023.
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