July 11 2006

bomb cloud Now Available: Newly revised paperback General Lee:Father of the Airborne. General Lee Paperback
AWOL : The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service -- and How It Hurts Our Country (Hardcover)by Kathy Roth-Douquet, Frank Schaeffer

(Great Review)

AWOL is sure to get people talking about who's serving-- and who isn't.

The authors of this very personal primer on military service, patriotism and the greater good of the nation are themselves elites. He is a novelist and journalist. She is a lawyer who worked in the Mondale campaign and the Clinton White House. Both had upscale upbringings.

He was surprised, and displeased initially, when his young son enlisted in the Marines. He never expected to marry a Marine officer. They both were as aloof to the military as the people they criticize now.

They make a compelling case against the upper crust's anti-military mindset, which has changed in recent decades. Service used to be widespread, relatively speaking. For example, "In 1956, 400 out of 750 in Princeton's graduating class entered the services." In 2004, only nine did - "and they led the Ivy League!"

The authors say at the outset that their effort is not an academic one, but facts like that comparison, which are the result of academic research, better serve their argument than their taking turns in first-person singular reminiscences, asides and speculations - Chatty Kathy and Perfectly Frank.

It is not just the elite universities that have changed. Families of CEOs are way under-represented in the military, including the families of newspaper owners and top executives. For that matter, the ranks of rank-and-file journalists are thin with veterans.

One message this book stresses is that if more reporters in Iraq were veterans there might be more knowledgeable, positive dispatches from the front.

Another group that has too many people absent without leave is Congress. Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer point to a study that shows veterans made up 70 percent of the Congress in 1969, 25 percent in 2004.

On this point I firmly agree. If the people who vote for war had firsthand knowledge about warfare, or had children in uniform, especially in harm's way, they might be more cautious about overusing and misusing troops in furthering foreign policies and national defense. Also more generous in providing fighting men and women with the equipment they need.

What goes for members of Congress definitely also goes for presidents. The co-authors write: "If the daughters of, say, President Bush and Bill Clinton had been patrolling the streets of Baghdad with, say, the son of the CEO of the New York Times, they likely would have had [better patrol vehicles] than the woefully under armored carriers" they got.

There is another benefit if very high-profile personalities enlist. "AWOL" cites Charles Moskos of Northwestern University, a military sociologist, about an interview in the 1990s with Army recruiters: "He asked them which they thought would aid more in their recruiting: having their budget doubled or having Chelsea Clinton enlist in the Army. Overwhelmingly, the recruiters chose the option of having a president's child serve."

Some statistics "AWOL" provides suggest that the demographics of enlisted men and women are not as bad as some (including the co-authors) believe. For instance, a fourth of career enlisted have college degrees. GIs are very similar to the working and middle classes in civilian life.

No billionaires, but so what if the ranks don't mirror the entire population?

"The armed forces do not reflect the general population in many ways. For instance males, conservatives, the able-bodied, and the young are disproportionate. We tolerate those, why not class? Perhaps the lack of socioeconomic diversity actually enhances readiness. It's possible that the middle class make better soldiers."

Those words belong to Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, who is described in the book as the head of "one of the offices that oversee personnel for the Marine Corps." It is to Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer's credit that they quote him at length in rebutting their thesis. Which for Schaeffer seems to go beyond drafting soldiers to also conscripting cops, firemen, armed guards in national parks and at monuments, etc. Roth-Douquet is more in the Kennedyesque vein of asking people to serve in the military and elsewhere.

"AWOL" is provocative. It can and should start a lot of arguments in country clubs, taverns, officers' clubs and PXes, and, I hope, in the Congress and the White House.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a former Savannah Morning News reporter. He served on a Navy vessel along the coast of North Korea during the war there.

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