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In military, personal preference trumps collective obligation - Opinion - The Boston Globe


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WHAT ARE the duties inherent in citizenship? For Americans, the answer to that question has changed dramatically over time. With regard to military service, the answer prevailing today is this one: No such duty exists. Service in the armed forces, whether pursuant to defending the homeland, advancing the cause of freedom abroad, or expanding the American imperium, has become entirely a matter of individual choice.

In that regard, the recent Pentagon decision to remove restrictions on women serving in combat hardly qualifies as a historic change. Instead, it ratifies a decades-old process that has removed military service from the realm of collective obligation and converted it into an issue of personal preference.

The really big change occurred at the end of the Vietnam War when, heeding President Richard Nixon’s request, Congress abolished the draft. In effect, the state thereby forfeited its authority, exercised in each major US war of the 20th century, to order citizens to take up arms on behalf of country and countrymen. That forfeiture proved irrevocable. Once surrendered, the government’s authority to mandate military service could not be reclaimed. That 18-year-old males still perform the ritual of registering for Selective Service — an action about as weighty as getting a flu shot — does not alter that fact.

So today, to fill the ranks of the armed forces, the state no longer issues orders. Instead, it dangles inducements. In that regard, we should credit the Pentagon with impressive success in its effort to rebrand military service. Once considered an imposition, it now signifies opportunity, offering prospects (depending on rank) of security, status, privilege, or even power.

Nothing better captures the shift in emphasis than the iconic US Army recruiting jingle of the 1980s: “Be All That You Can Be.” To an extent that would have astonished the G.I.’s who fought in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, military service has become a venue for individual self-actualization. In the recruiting sergeant’s office, as elsewhere in American life, the conversation centers not on “us” but on “me.”

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