Escalating Afghanistan: What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?

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Religion Dispatches

Escalating Afghanistan: What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?

by
Peter Laarman

Thirty-four years ago this month the young James Fallows published (in the Washington Monthly) what still remains a definitive article about the class divide in times of war—“What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” I still have a yellowed original copy somewhere. Fallows was writing about the sickening reality that as a Harvard student he, like so many other Ivy Leaguers, could quite easily avoid fighting in Vietnam. They had the ways and means to avoid military service: exemptions, deferments, lawyers, connections.

I was reminded of Fallows’ awkward question a couple of weeks ago when I was in New Haven to receive Yale Divinity School’s William Sloane Coffin ‘56 Peace and Justice Award. Coffin famously commenced his 17-year chaplaincy at Yale by telling the members of the 1959 freshman class that “the Lord forbids our using our education merely to buy our way into middle class security.” Coffin and other antiwar religious activists of the time never could persuade a majority of upper-middle class students to take to the streets against the Vietnam madness, though they made a valiant effort—and they understood the ugly race and class dimension of American imperialism.

Thinking about Coffin’s legacy, I had to ask myself exactly what I have been doing during the current class war—a siege that is far more severe and ugly than the one that sent mainly working-class and rural kids to fight and die for nothing in the rice paddies of Vietnam.

Today, obviously, our privileged young people do not have to worry about a military draft: there is absolutely no chance that they will be compelled to serve. But what is far worse than Vietnam-era draft evasion by the young and well-connected is the complete insulation from the consequences of bad policy enjoyed by today’s jeunesse doree. Not only do they not have to go to the burning deserts of Iraq or to the chilly forbidding heights of Afghanistan: they don’t even have to know anything about the lives of those who are going. The idea that they might experience any Fallows-like guilt or have any second thoughts about their degree of insulation is simply not an issue today.

This extreme stratification and insulation of the privileged is what weighs on my mind—and what should weigh on all concerned religious leaders—on the cusp of President Obama’s decision whether or not to let Gen. MacArthur (oops, sorry—Gen. McChrystal) steamroll him into increasing U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan by 40,000—or even 85,000.

Earlier this month the Pentagon crowed that it had just completed its best recruiting year in three and a half decades. The announcement made no secret of the fact that a devastatingly bad job market is just terrific news for military recruiters waving hefty signing bonuses. The question of conscience: How do we feel about taking advantage of the economic vulnerability of the majority of American youth in order to make them still more vulnerable: i.e., vulnerable to suicide bombers, IEDs, mortar rounds, and even “friendly fire”?

We might do well to recall that the ancient military state of Sparta used a class of people called helots to wage its many wars. The helots were not exactly private property in the manner of Athenian slaves; rather, they could best be described as serfs or slaves of the public: available and expected to do the public’s bloody business of conquest and pillage.

Let us say it clearly and see how it feels upon the tongue: today’s “all-volunteer” military represents a contemporary form of helotry. We give the great majority of our young very little hope for a foothold in our collapsed economy; then we send them off to fight and die (or, given the significant advancements in military field medicine, to return home horribly damaged) in order to “defend” the grossly unequal society that dealt them such a bad hand in the first place.

There is nothing new about this, you say, and you are right. But tell me when it has been quite this bad? Two-thirds of all income gains between 2002 and 2007 went to the top one percent of Americans. The ratio of CEO compensation to average worker compensation in 1965—when the catastrophic Vietnam “surge” began—was bad enough at around 25-to-1. Today that ratio is 300-to-1 and soaring, despite the fact that Wall Street’s best and brightest just pushed the economy over the brink.

People ask why there is so little outrage over the absurd idea that we can make ourselves more secure by putting down a huge military footprint in a little-known (by us) region of the world and by routinely assassinating that region’s indigenous leaders (bear in mind that Obama ordered more drone attacks in his first six months in office than Bush ordered in his last three-and-one-half years).

I will tell you why I think there is so little outrage: the people making these decisions remain as arrogant as ever while enjoying more insulation than ever from the consequences of their bad decisions, whereas the people being deployed to fight come from a population that has been rendered effectively voiceless. After all, economic desperation is about much more than just having no money; it’s about being anxious and stressed and having to hustle in two or three junk jobs just to survive.

Do the stressed-out strike you as people who are likely or able to articulate and express a strong antiwar view and then to vote accordingly? I don’t think so. And this is in part because these likely military recruits are not simply cannon fodder—they are also fodder for the well-heeled demagogues who tell them all the time that what holds them back is Big Government, or brown people sneaking across the border to steal their jobs, or Jews, or even a Black (possibly foreign? possibly Muslim?) president.

And even if economically desperate Americans do actually see the proposed Af-Pak surge as a looming catastrophe (as I believe many do), does it really matter to the policymakers what they think? The economically distressed and marginal count for less than ever in this hollowed-out and corrupt formal democracy. The Democratic Party’s dirty little secret for the past 30 years is that it has as little interest in mobilizing the poor and marginal as does the Republican Party. What was once the party of “the little guy” has unmistakably hitched its wagon to the party of wealth.

Religiously speaking, the right descriptor for a system that insulates some and exposes others to the horrors of imperial war—and that relies on the same growing inequality to stifle dissent—is demonic. These are demons that won’t be cast out until we first name them properly. For clergy, naming them is not just an option or something that only some bold and reckless colleagues might wish to undertake. Religious leaders are not allowed to sit out the class war. It’s our job to be combatants, ready or not.

Peter Laarman is executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of activist individuals and congregations headquartered in Los Angeles. He served as the senior minister of New York's Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for the ministry.

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