The US all-volunteer military system is unjust

I've never been a soldier. My closest encounter came when I spent two years in mandatory (yes, mandatory) Reserve Officers Training Corps in college.

When I received my draft notice in 1967, my near-sighted eyes made me unqualified ever to serve in combat. In addition, I had been diagnosed in college with rheumatoid arthritis. So my Selective Service classification changed from 1A (warm body ready for shipment to Vietnam) to 1Y (temporary medical deferment, which stretched into a permanent one).

So perhaps I'm not the right person to suggest that the way the United States creates its military today is wrong and needs to be changed. Still, I recognize that our all-volunteer military system is unjust. It encourages an inequitable social division, allowing people with means to turn over the nation's defense to people for whom military service may be one of the few options for making a living.

As Miami-based writer Timothy Villareal concluded in this piece last year, "[T]he American people and the U.S. military have, for all intents and purposes, become entirely separate political entities, with separate value systems and life motivations."

Thinking about instances in which our military occasionally has committed torture and done such despicable acts as urinating on the bodies of dead enemy combatants, Villareal writes this: "If America is to help dissolve tyranny abroad, it can only be done by Americans who love human life, human rights and the values of open society -- not by people who commit war crimes [and] conceal the war crimes of others. …"

The expectation that young, draft-age Americans have a patriotic and moral duty to do public service -- military or otherwise -- seems to have largely disappeared, despite such laudable organizations as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and Teach for America.

Instead, our culture encourages young people to get college educations so they can get jobs that will allow them to operate hedge funds and own three or four cars. All the while, our volunteer soldiers fight wars against ill-defined enemies in far-away places and, once home, commit suicide at terrible rates and seek to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder with help from a sometimes-ineffective and overloaded Veterans Administration system.

Villareal suggests a possible answer: accompaniment soldiers who "would, literally, accompany the regular armed soldiers to the battle zones to provide them with moral support, including prayer support for their co-religionists. …"

It's a fresh idea, but one I doubt would ever get adopted or ever attract many volunteers. Still, here's his argument:

Accompaniment soldiers would ensure that the physical, mental and spiritual hazards of our nation's wars can be shared by all who are willing. This new category would also help to end the moral scourge that can rightly be called chickenhawkism: the cravenness of grown and able-bodied adults who profusely profess how much they "support the troops" and egg on every war that comes down the pike, but who sacrifice nothing themselves.

Even if the idea of accompaniment soldiers is impractical, as I believe it to be, it raises the issue of how we citizens who aren't in the military really can support our troops in ways that make moral sense and how we can work toward creating a culture of service that might work for the common good even while challenging our leaders to be peacemakers.

In other words, the idea challenges what Villareal, in another piece, has called "the sheer immorality of sending a tiny portion of the U.S. population off to die in wars in the name of this country, while the rest of us are instructed to 'go shopping' -- as President (George W.) Bush once told Americans."

I'm not a pacifist. Sometimes war is the least evil of a series of evil choices. But the way in which we create, maintain and deploy our military today is a moral failure that we must fix.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at]

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