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Why don’t presidents fight the war,
Why do they always send the poor?
System of a Down – BYOB
Where Soldiers Come From is a PBS documentary that was aired last year chronicling the plight of a group of high school friends in Michigan who join the National Guard. They joined because they needed work, they needed money, and the National Guard offered $20,000 to sign on – plus money for college. They all ended up in the middle of war. The film focuses upon the difficulties many of them had fitting back into society upon returning home. Substance abuse, PTSD, abusive relationships – war had radically changed them.
I come from a family that has military experience. My grandfather was in WWII and at my request he sat down and recorded himself talking about his his time in France and Germany. He hit the beaches of Normandy the day after D-Day. He talked about the bodies and the carnage, not in heroic terms, but with sad resignation. Later in life he refused to participate in Memorial Day parades. “That’s for the soldiers who had desk jobs,” he’d say. My dad was in Vietnam and he still won’t talk about it – I’ve tried. He just tells me “I don’t have to talk about that with anyone.” When I was a kid I remember my dad didn’t want anything to do with my friend’s dad who was a doctor. He came from money and he got out of going to Vietnam. My grandpa was drafted, and my dad enlisted because he knew he was going to get drafted. They didn’t have money, they weren’t going to college. So off to war they went.
Last year I spent time volunteering at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in south Minneapolis. The kids that go to school there do not come from wealth or privilege. They have a National Guard recruiter stationed in the school. Many of the seniors got into college, but couldn’t afford it. I remember how one girl burst into the guidance office – she had been accepted to a good school and had received a $10,000 scholarship… only the school cost $35,000 a year. “How am I going to pay for this?” she said as she sobbed. The next week she signed up for the National Guard.
My problem is not with the military, the National Guard, or high school graduates deciding they want to go into the military. I encountered a few Cristo Rey seniors last year who had decided enlisting was what they wanted to do with their lives – they wanted to be Marines. While it’s not what I would choose, I supported them in their decision. My problem is with a system that makes it difficult for students who do not come from wealth or status to gain access to the resources they need to make a life for themselves. I have a problem with seniors enlisting in the National Guard because they can’t afford college, or they can’t find a job that will allow them to support a family. Because our country is in a perpetual state of war – it’s inevitable they will end up in the middle of fierce fighting somewhere around the globe. Broken families, PTSD, substance abuse, physical abuse, death – all for a $20,000 signing bonus and some college tuition. I don’t care if you’re a pacifist or a just-war advocate. I don’t care if you’re a conservative or liberal – Bush or Obama. These wars are being fought by the poor and this is systemic injustice.
What to do? Well for starters – Christian colleges like Dordt, Calvin, Hope, and Northwestern could begin creatively thinking about how to tear down the structural barriers to give those who do not come from wealth or privilege access to educational resources. Who knows… we might even be able to work together?