March 3, 2005

I was glad to read an article in this month's Harper's Magazine by Kathie Dobie about what happens when a soldier runs away from the army. Going absent without leave is a bigger problem for the military services than I had realized. And, it's getting worse because it's harder now than it was a few years ago to recruit new people into the military ranks.

The feature of the article that made me happy, though, was not the explanation of what the military does about runaways, but rather the description of army life that causes them to run away in the first place.

Over the past few years I've begun to doubt my memory. The picture of the average soldier that is pumped at us both by the government and the major media is so out of whack with the guys I knew when I was in the army that either I've lost my mind or there's been a transformation of the military services more miraculous than any other change in the history of the world.

Perhaps I shouldn't tell you this, but the soldiers I knew when I was a soldier were not shining paragons of virtue, nor idealistic defenders of democracy, nor eager humanitarians, nor walking commercials for the American way of life. They were rather average young men, drawn from a variety of American communities, who were being subjected to an intense psychological campaign to make them into eager killers. And, for the most part, the campaign worked. I can tell you this without one fraction of doubt: if the units I was a part of had been turned loose on a population with little scrutiny of their actions, the thought of observing even minimal human rights would never have entered our heads.

And, here's the thing -- what I remember about the army I was part of is exactly what Kathie Dobie describes about the army of today. The things modern soldiers say and do are exactly in line with what was said and done when I was a soldier. Maybe that's because there's something about soldiering down the ages that shapes a person into the same mold. I can't be sure. But I do urge you to read Ms. Dobie's article and keep it in mind when your TV swells with stirring music as background for reporting on our heroes.

©John R. Turner

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