Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mission: Readiness and a strange lack of perspective

You may have heard by now about Mission: Readiness, an group that sums itself up as "nonprofit, bi-partisan organization led by senior retired military leaders ensuring continued American security and prosperity into the 21st century by calling for smart investments in the next generation of American children." They've been getting a fair bit of press (even from nutters!) as they prepared for today's roll-out, in conjunction with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, of a report on the fitness for military service of today's American youth. (Here's the press release.) Most of the reporting/outrage/gee-whiz factor has been related to one statistic. From the website's front page:

Today we are confronted by a sobering statistic from the U.S. Army: 75% of young Americans are ineligible to serve their country because they have either failed to graduate high school, engaged in criminal activity, or are physically or mentally unfit.

We need a bold strategy to inspire our young people to do better, and to increase the chances that they will succeed. [emphasis added]

I've seen this number flying around the internet for the last couple of days, notably in a friend's Facebook status message: "75% of people 17-24 are unfit to serve due to weight, education or criminal history. 30% Of those were too fat. So 45% are too stupid or convicted. Rome burns." He's actually got it wrong, of course, because we're talking not only about lack of physical fitness but also medical disqualifiers like asthma, joint injuries, irregular heartbeat, and so on.

It's also worth noting (as Mission: Readiness does in a footnote at the bottom of the homepage) that this data comes from a 2005 study for the Army's Center for Accessions Research. In the intervening period, a number of waivers have been granted for educational shortfalls and small-time criminality (though the troubled economy has helped push recruiting standards back up in the last several months by attracting jobless high-school grads with clean records).

But none of this is why I'm writing about Mission: Readiness. Really I just wanted to say that I think it's pretty freakin' weird to be talking about early childhood education, parenting guidance, mental and nutrition services, and so on as matters of national security. I mean, there's a case to be made for doing more of all of that, though reasonable people will disagree about how good that case is. (Believe me, my Yellow Dog Democrat girlfriend will give you all the reasons.) And there's a case to be made that the American military edge comes from "the quality of our people," the unique talents and qualifications of the American fighting man, and whatnot (though I'd argue that this is more often a matter of training, doctrine, and resources than of personnel "raw materials"). But really, is the best way to argue in favor of what would necessarily be a vast expansion of the role of the federal government and of reasonably invasive social programs an appeal to military readiness? If you're a believer in that stuff, shouldn't it be enough that we have a lot of people who are poor, who are hungry, who are unhealthy, diabetic, fat, undereducated, unambitious, badly parented, perhaps criminally neglected, angry at school, unable to learn, and so on and so on and so on? Do you really need to pitch those programs by citing security requirements (particularly when we already have a reasonably large standing military and spend a significant amount of money on Defense personnel accounts)?

I don't want to get into a whole go-round about domestic politics, because that's not really what this is about. It just strikes me as evidence of the militarization of our public discourse, of the complete normalization of appeals to mass insecurity as a means to advance policy objectives. I typically don't have a lot of patience for complaints about how the Terror Alert Level was a cynical ploy by the Bush Administration to control Americans through fear and other stuff like that (however useless I find that system to be), but here's an example of the pernicious effect of keeping terror front of mind in the way we talk about policy and politics. We're saying that we should have less high school dropouts, hungry kids, and parents who beat their children because if we don't fix those problems, we won't have enough soldiers for our army.

Seriously?

7 comments:

  1. We're saying that we should have less high school dropouts, hungry kids, and parents who beat their children because if we don't fix those problems, we won't have enough soldiers for our army.

    Excellent point. I hadn't seen that organization before, thanks for the heads-up.

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  2. this is more often a matter of training, doctrine, and resources than of personnel "raw materials"

    One thing I learned from observing Soldiers is that you can't discount the "raw materials". As one example (out of many), a Soldier who comes in the Army and can't do simple stuff like figure out percentages simply will not work well as a flight operations specialist, charged with adding up hundreds and thousands of flight hours each month.

    Yo

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  3. If I thought it would be sufficient to make Wesley Clark go away, then that would be enough motivation for me.

    I second Starbuck's comment on raw materials. I hand-picked my driver and gunner - a Texas redneck and a Chicago pill-popper, respectively.

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  4. "talking about early childhood education, parenting guidance, mental and nutrition services, and so on as matters of national security."

    Isn't that all just another subsection of "good governance" and effective education? Isn't that what the US is asking from Afghanistan?

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  5. "Seriously? "

    Sure - well, we can't say that there is a federal government responsibility to ensure health and happiness, that would be too mamby-pamby liberal weak-wristed nonsense. Now if you make it a matter of national security, that gives the right-of-center people cover to do what's right in the first place.

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  6. Schmedlap -- I drove GEN Clark from the airport to his hotel in my little college town once, about eight or ten years ago. A lecture series organization that I was in had brought him to campus to speak.

    I can say without a doubt that he was the most aloof, patronizing old crank I've ever had the misfortune to drive for 15 minutes. I've realized as I get older that part of that is just how generals are, but I've always sort of thought of him as a d-bag since then.

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  7. Seems to me that what this group is saying about this being a national security issue makes sense. Clearly, if we can't as a nation help develop young people to where they are at least ABLE TO MAKE THE CHOICE about whether they want to go into the military, we're in trouble -- in lots of ways. Not only will our military suffer, but our businesses will have the same problems finding talented employees (OK, so they can be fat). And if kids don't graduate from high school, then their outlooks are pretty bad (and our communities less productive and safe).

    One more thing that occurs to me: I'm not the biggest fan of the military, but it seems to me that for a lot of young people, the military is a really good option to change their lives, get trained and educated, make and save money, and perhaps do better than they would have otherwise done. Of course, it's not for everybody, and young people should have many choices. But it's really sad that -- probably do to many factors that kids may or may not have control of -- so many young people will not be able to even explore the military as an option.

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