Service and Sacrifice
While I was in the duldrums of the first week of law school, Phil Carter had a post up regarding the reported increase in ROTC enrollments in America's colleges. Like Phil, I'm very excited to hear this, and would certainly endorse these thoughts he shared:
In particular, our military depends on young citizens graduating from college to make this choice -- forgoing possible riches in the private sector for a few years while they serve their nation. Unfortunately, the burden of service (as officers and enlisted personnel) has mostly been borne by America's working and middle class. This article didn't discuss the equitable issues of military service, and the current distribution of ROTC students by socioeconomic class. But this is certainly a concern of mine, and something I hope to see reported in the future.
Indeed, I had some of these same things in mind when I joined. I don't know if I shared this story on this blog yet, but I've cut and pasted it from an old website since it ties in with Phil's comments (I've edited it to fix some verb tenses, but keep in mind it's several years old).
Why I Joined
During the spring of 1999, in my freshman year at Harvard, I was interning in the Boston office of Senator Kerry. I was answering phones, and at the time many of the calls were concerning the aerial bombardment of Kosovo which had just begun. One call in particular was very moving for me. It was from the mother of a young Marine who had just been shipped to the Balkans. She demanded to know what right politicians, sitting in their fancy suits in their fancy offices, had to send her son off to war for people we were not allied with against people who posed no threat to us. While I did not necessarily agree with her analysis of the situation in the Balkans (I think our interests were at risk and that humanitarian interventions are often self-justified), it did raise a question in my mind. At that time, neither the President (Clinton), the Secretary of State (Albright), the Secretary of Defense (Cohen) nor the National Security Adviser (Berger) had ever served in the military. I don't believe that military experience is necessary for civilian leadership, but I was surprised.
The question that was raised in my mind was this: is it moral to ask others to die fighting in a war if I am not willing to fight alongside them? In other words, is it moral to let those who normally enlist in the military (a high percentage of whom are from the lower class, as the military presents a stable job and educational opportunities) fight wars to protect the economic and political interests of the ruling class?
For me, the answer was no... let me make clear that I find no fault with those who have an incredible aversion to warfare (we all should) or a military lifestyle, and thus choose not to serve, or even those who simply see the issue differently.
But for me, at that time, I could not get past the fact that I did not feel morally justified in supporting a military action (such as that in Kosovo) without being willing to contribute some level of sacrifice of my own. So I called around the various military recruiters, decided ROTC was the best route for me (since I could stay in college) and took the 3-year Army scholarship when it was offered.
Why I Stayed
Though I joined ROTC out of a sense of moral duty, I'm not certain that sense alone would have kept me in the program, particulary when I became serious about Zen Buddhism (an issue I address below).
Instead, what kept me in the program was the feeling of community, the opportunities for personal growth, and the hope to contribute a unique perspective to the internal Army discourse.
The feeling of community is two-fold. I felt a bond both with my unit and with the larger Army community. Within my unit, I enjoyed the opportunity to work side by side with some brilliant and dedicated people. This included both my fellow cadets and the Army officers who ran the program, our cadre. I considered many of the cadets personal friends and look forward to keeping in touch as our Army careers unfold.
The Army as a whole also provides a certain bond, a piece of personal identification that can provide a friendly link between two people who share it. I always enjoy meeting other members of the military and hearing their stories, their experiences, what the service has done for them.
Which brings up the point of what the service has done for me. Before I joined, I was not a bad person, or a weak person, or a lazy person. But I did have significant room for improvement (still do), in areas that I did not think a normal Harvard education could provide. I saw the Army ROTC experience as providing three main opportunities for growth in my own life: leadership, discipline, and physical fitness.
Both the leadership and discipline benefits stem from the opportunity to hold a position in a chain of command, a hierarchy. If done well, each individual in the chain is given commands from above, well-balanced with discretionary power of their own. Thus they are given a framework to operate in, but left to make important choices of their own, choices that will effect others.
The physical fitness component should be self-evident. Much of the Army's operational duties involve moderate to strenuous physical activity, and the ROTC emphasis on infantry tactics certainly follows suit. After joining the program, I added 20 lbs., primarily lean body mass, and even more importantly, I learned how to enjoy exercise and healthy eating (though I still hate running).
Zen and the Army
The greatest internal challenge I faced with regards to my Army committment was not the 5:30 wake-ups for physical training or the need to follow orders even though I had my own idea how to run things.
The greatest challenge came during the spring of my sophomore year when I grew further and further interested in the spiritual path of Zen Buddhism. I'm not going to attempt to trace the outlines of Buddhism (I'm not qualified to make even the most elementary analysis), but I want to relate my views on why that spiritual path seemed to clash with my Army commitment, and how I resolved the internal conflict.
The basic philosophical difference I saw was in the Zen emphasis on compassion as the motivation for all action. In my early understanding of this concept, it seemed to be that this emphasis would prevent me from taking part in many of the Army's activities, since governments (and most people) tend to act in their own self-interest, a natural tendency but one that a Zen Buddhist endeavours to overcome. Being even more specific (though possibly over-simplifying in the process), is it ever possible to shoot or kill another human being out of compassion? It is a difficult question, one that I have not yet resolved (a debate I've been having ever since my freshman year course on ethics and international relations). It seems unlikely at first, but consider the kidnapper about to execute a hostage... could the police sniper not shoot the kidnapper out of compassion for the hostage? I believe that was Augustine's position, that killing was acceptable in defense of others, though not in defense of yourself. Another perspective might say that it is acceptable to shoot the kidnapper out of compassion for him, since you'd be preventing him from committing murder. Unorthodox, yes. Morally logical? Well I honestly don't know, I just can't resolve that right now...
What I did resolve was this: there will be continue to be wars in this world whether I am in the Army or not. There will still be an Army whether I'm in it or not. The question is whether I can individually act out of compassion within the military, possibly lessening any suffering that might take place. Put in other words, if all those who had strong moral qualms about war refused to serve in the military, what are we left with? A military filled with people who have no moral qualms about war. A more violent and more dangerous military. A military capable of atrocities, of war crimes. See, in my current worldview, even in war there are different levels of moral action. It DOES make a difference whether you take the villagers prisoner or shoot them in their beds. And the people who make those choices need to have moral qualms about violence.
As Thich Nhat Hanh said in his commentary on the First Precept:
Anyone can practice some nonviolence, even army generals. They may, for example, conduct their operations in ways that avoid killing innocent people. To help soldiers move in the nonviolent direction, we have to be in touch with them. If we divide reality into two camps -- the violent and the nonviolent -- and stand in one camp while attacking the other, the world will never have peace. We will always blame and condemn those we feel are responsible for wars and social injustice, without recognizing the degree of violence in ourselves. We must work on ourselves and also work with those we condemn if we want to have a real impact.
Thus, while I'm unable to predict whether I would have joined the military in the first place if I had been a Zen Buddhist at the time, I can say that now I think I have the opportunity to fulfill an important individual purpose.