Within his July 1 Time cover story, you almost wish Joe Klein would just say it — how he yearns for one of those national service programs always suggested as the answer, at least among the chewy authoritarian center, to all of America’s problems.
He never does, though. But the implications throughout his piece — even starting with the headline — suggest no reason why Klein should object to such a grand project.
The headline: “Can Service Save Us?” — the subhed: “It just might. By helping returning troops regain their sense of purpose, veterans’ groups are proving that public service is therapeutic.” The start of the pieces looks at how initial reports suggest that hands-on community helping diminishs the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in American veterans. Good. Awesome. Doctors and veterans’ groups should pursue that, as a few have begun to. And it’s annoying to be told that helping people is nice! by a magazine, but at least Klein’s piece thinks helping people after disasters is a nice thing to do. Which it is. So yippee for him. No problems there.
But this is Time magazine. Worse still, this is Joe Klein. And Klein is just one man among that special breed of soft-sounding authoritarian pundits who are convinced that we, as a nation, have lost our way in a haze of people doing what they want. The only solution to that imaginary fog is that something that may work for veterans (who have been trained to work as a unit and to derive their worth from working in a group) should — maybe — be put on all people of this could-be-great nation. Or, more likely, all young people. Because young people, in Klein’s words are “couch dwellers.”Yet, there seems to be within them “a general hunger for service”. But that’s not enough because we in America have “slouched from active citizenship to passive couch potato-hood.”
Worst still is “…our waning sense of civil engagement, our weirdly hollow democracy in which active citizenship has been displaced by marketing and political sloganeering.” Weirdly hollow like, say, spouting off Robert Putnam-style fearmongering without a shred of evidence to back your accusations of American decline as either some new problem, or even a definition of what that problem is in the world beyond Time magazine? What the hell, Joe Klein, is “active citizenship”?
This all builds up to Klein’s big question — “Would it be so bad if the rest of us became more attuned to the values and can do spirit our veterans have brought home from the military?”
Klein obviously thinks not, but under his thin veneer of semi-objectivity, he never even answers his own query. But the song of military greatness runs all through this piece. Their brotherhood, their sorrow and injury over their lost (mostly) brothers, the complete lack of critical thinking on just what the military does… Nobody is expecting Time to write a searing, anti-military article. But by subscribing to the dominant narrative of troops as heroes — albeit broken ones — Klein gets to have his cake and eat it. He can frame his piece in an a-political manner, he can tip-toe around national service, while still getting across a fundamentally political message: the troops are there to save us all, let’s be more like the troops.
A scrap of questioning, one sentence that admits that PTSD may not just stem from seeing the blood of your own side spilled, would have helped Klein. But there is nothing but praise for these damaged patriots who helped people abroad, and are now learning to help them here. Hell, if you didn’t know anything about the military before reading Klein’s piece, you might come away with the idea that it’s some sort of occasionally dangerous, international Scouting adventure. Even those who wish to argue the merits of a standing army — or one constantly adventuring abroad — should have the intellectual honesty to clarify just what soldiers do.
This is not to say anyone antiwar should revel in the PTSD in soldiers coming back from war. Maybe helping out in disaster zones will improve their health. Great! Though it’s hard not to wish they had done that in the first place. But why, again, must this good mental health news translate to a greater national purpose for the rest of us un-Great slobs?
Because people like Klein do not trust individuals to live their own lives. America is not a humming, chaotic mess of people loving and living and working to them. At least it shouldn’t be. When individuals are left to their own devices, some elusive, abstract notion of “Greatness” is not being pursed. And that is intolerable to such people. Especially when it comes to the younger generations.
Why not just have a draft then, if these young people owe something to the nation, and need to be molded by its Greatness?
Why don’t the elderly have a similar obligation? Why is always the young who are so green that they demand the fine-tuning of the Nation’s Hand to make them blossom into “active citizens”? Indeed, why are the supposed attributes to be found in the military, or “service” so apolitical as to be not worthy of discussion? Is serving Obama’s America as worthy as serving Bush’s which is just as good as serving Nixon’s or Wilson’s? And if so, what does it matter what the government or the military does — what wars they fight and why and how — if serving them is always the highest ideal?
But really, a draft! Why not if we’re in such miserable shape? I’m sure that that’s the ideal method of imparting the military’s “can do spirit”.
Because, thank God, that notion remains unpopular. The article’s side-graph reassures the reader that only 22 percent of respondents support the idea of “mandatory” national service. So that’s comforting, as is Rep. Charlie Rangel’s constant failure to bring back conscription. We’re in difficult shape in America when it comes to freedoms, but at least there seems to be a lingering aversion to the idea that young people belong to the government to quite this extent. Maybe that’s one lesson from Vietnam that stuck.
So my prayer is that the Kleins, the David Brooks, the Thomas Friedmans, and the Aaron Sorkins of the world remain forever frustrated that America is not all it could be. And that the government continues to allow too many young people to follow their own paths, pursue their own interests, and even help people – -all without the military or the clunky, bureaucratic mess sure to come out of any official institution of “national service.”