AWOL - KATHY ROTH-DOQUET AND FRANK SCHAEFER

BOOK REVIEW

AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service — and How It Hurts Our Country (Hardcover)
Kathy Roth-Douquet (Author), Frank Schaeffer (Author)

Reviewed by Brendan Conway, editorial writer at The Washington Times, September 5, 2006

It's old news that military service has all but disappeared among the upper classes. That's why no one is surprised to hear that Harvard — which still bans ROTC — graduated all of nine ROTC cadets this year (MIT hosts them down the river).

Not everyone suffers from outrage fatigue, though — certainly not Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer. The authors of AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from the Military — and How It Hurts Our Country are appalled at their peers' lack of knowledge, even rudimentary knowledge, of the military.

Mrs. Roth-Douquet, a former Clinton Pentagon official, and Mr. Schaeffer, a novelist and nonfiction writer, both travel in “elite” Boston-New York-Washington circles, and both also happen to belong to military families. This joins with a healthy dose of outrage for a lively, first-hand look at a problem in plain sight.

“From the earliest days of my marriage, people said little things, questions probing how it could happen that someone like my husband — so smart, so versatile — ended up in the military,” writes Mrs. Roth-Douquet. “Said one mother to me, 'I've raised my sons to be sensitive to others, and to be critical thinkers, so I don't think they'd be well suited for the military.'”

We should carefully evaluate what went wrong,” a head-shaking Brown University history professor said when Mr. Schaeffer's son, John, joined the Marines. The authors vent at the snobbery.

“These days some members of our upper classes are so hostile to the idea of service that they have all but banned military recruiters from our best high schools and college campuses, lest anyone even suggest to their young people that military service is an honorable interruption in the rush to elite colleges and socially acceptable jobs and lots of money,” they write.

Elsewhere: “Ivy League students are ignorant about the military. Like others in society, the Ivy League gains most of its knowledge from the media and few have experiences with a close friend or family member who has served in the military.” But it's not just East Coast liberals. It's also a Bush administration that has declined to ask for much of a national sacrifice in the current war.

“Since 9/11 we have not had a national war effort. Our military is 0.4 percent of the population, and though it seems to be terribly understaffed, there is no serious political effort to increase the size — so that a tiny proportion of the population bears an enormous burden in this war,” they write.

And then, it's also the larger culture — specifically the Vietnam-era Baby Boomer generation. “If you wanted to join, fine. If you didn't, that was fine too,” the authors write, describing the ethos after the introduction in 1973 of the all-volunteer force. “Military service became just another item on an ever-lengthening list of personal choices.”

So, now the culprits are identified, and it's just about everyone. What next?

For starters, the authors want a cultural change, which is fair enough. They want military recruiters to stop perceiving Ivy Leaguers as “short-timers” who aren't worth pursuing. They want ROTC to become a floating scholarship as a means of expanding choice; they want the services to promise a top engineering student a spot in the Army Corps of Engineers if that's what he wants. They also want better tax incentives, a 15-month “citizen-soldiers” service option and a “national service lottery” which sounds like a watered-down draft. Some of these ideas are better than others, but all are worth debating.

Still, though, the question remains: How much does the “elite” disconnect with the military even matter? Clearly it's a problem, but how serious is it? It matters less as an “elite” issue than as a subset of the broader problems associated with the all-volunteer force.

Scholars who study “the gap” between civilians and the military find that public confidence in the military, the numbers and types of conflicts the country enters into, and cooperation between the military and the political leadership are all affected when direct connections to the military attenuate. This has happened, and drastically so, since 1973.

The authors can reasonably hope to have nudged public awareness of these facts somewhat, amid some healthy and rather deserved punches at “elites.”

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at The Washington Times and a 2006 Phillips Foundation journalism fellow.