Photo by Edward F. Palm)

About Me

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Forest, Virginia, United States
A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Back to the Future: Why I Would Restore the Draft

"There Is Something About a Soldier."  Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis
July, 1983
Ed Palm Photo
[My introduction here is dated.  I wrote this essay in response to the surge in Iraq.  But, with General McChristal calling for more troops in Afghanistan, I think my concerns are still valid, and I stand by my argument.]

If any good comes out of the war in Iraq—and, the surge notwithstanding, I doubt that any will—I hope the proverbial silver lining will be a thoroughgoing reconsideration of our reliance on an all-volunteer military. 
            I say that for a number of reasons.  It’s obviously proving too small for our current commitments.  It’s patently unfair to ask so much of so few.  Moreover, the nature of the threat we now face, it seems to me, demands a return to our Cold War posture.  We need a large military widely dispersed at numerous bases throughout the United States and ready to respond to an attack or natural disaster at a moment’s notice. 
But, as a former enlisted Marine and a career Marine office turned academic, my main reason in advocating that we go back to the future is because the military was always the best reform school we had going. 
            Picture it:  Parris Island, the summer of 1965.  Marine Boot Camp has long been legendary for physical and psychological abuse.  The opening scenes of Full Metal Jacket convey some sense of what it could be like. But worse than the physical abuse, in my view, was the psychological torment—not the least of which was a strictly enforced code of silence.  For the entire eight weeks, we never got to talk to one another, or to anyone except our drill instructor, and then only when spoken to. 
            It was, therefore, a supreme relief about halfway through the program when our platoon went on mess duty and I found myself and one other recruit alone in the pot shack out back of the mess hall.   Our mission—and we were not given any choice about accepting it—was to scrub spotlessly clean a seemingly endless supply of dirty pots large enough to cook missionaries in.  But at least we could relax and talk to one another like normal, free human beings. 
            My fellow pot-scrubber, I found out, was from a broken family in Arkansas.  His was a common story in those days.  He had dropped out of high school to join the Marine Corps.  But what really floored me was when he said he would be “out of here” by this time the following week.  We still had at least four weeks to go on “the island.” 
            He was only 16, he explained.  (Legally, you had to be at least 17 to join, and even then you needed a parent’s signature.)   He went on to admit that he had gotten in so much trouble in high school that his mother, at her wit’s end, agreed to lie about his age and to sign the papers so he could enlist.  After four or five weeks at Parris Island, however, he was seeing things from a different point of view.  He was especially happy that he would be out in time to rejoin his high school class. 
            “You know,” I remember his saying, while leaning in almost to the bottom of a huge pot, “I used to think school was the worst thing that ever happened to me.  But, when I get back in that classroom, they’re going to have to beat me out with a stick!”
            I wish I had written down that recruit’s name and had kept track of him.  Here, he was almost a high school dropout, and I would bet that he went on to become a doctor, lawyer, or successful businessman.  At the very least, he was able to write one hell of an essay on the perennial topic of “how I spent my summer vacation.” 
            I too have come a long way since then.  I went on to become a Marine officer and an academic with a Ph.D.  A lot of people along the way helped me get there, but whatever success I’ve had I owe mostly to those guys wearing Smokey the Bear hats back there at Parris Island.  From them, in no uncertain terms, I leaned to accept responsibility, to persist in the face of adversity, and to respect authority.  But, most of all, what they taught me was that self-esteem can’t be bestowed; it has to be earned.  Our public schools don’t seem to be doing a very good job teaching these life lessons anymore.  Maybe it’s time to let the military have a shot at it again.  --EFP


J. David Bell said...

I'm going to have to disagree with Ed on this one (or maybe he's being tongue-in-cheek?). First, I'm not convinced that our schools are doing such a bad job of disciplining students--like all organizations, they're doing a bad job with some, a good job with others. Second, I'm not convinced the military does or would do any better. For every story of a wayward kid whose life got turned around by the military, there's a story of a wayward kid whose life stayed pretty much the same, or got worse, thanks to time served in the military. (I know this from experience with multiple cousins, friends, and girlfriends who went the military route. Some are doing great. Others are doing lousy. Anecdotal evidence only gets you so far.) And personally, I'd rather a kid stayed wayward and alive than got straightened out by a roadside IED. At the risk of straining my friendship with Ed, I'm going to paraphrase Thoreau: "That military is best that militarizes not at all."

Edward F. Palm said...

No strain on our friendship at all. I'm looking for dialogue, not universal approbation. I do have to point out, however, that falling back on Thoreau too can get you only so far. While there is much to admire about him, his self-reliance was more rhetorical than real. (The land he squatted on was not his, and as I understand it, he often went home to mom for meals.) But I think even Thoreau would have admitted that an organized military is a necessity in the modern age. My main concern is the obvious inequity presented by our All Volunteer Force. A little bad Churchill comes to mind: Never have so many expected so much of so few. And, granted, not everyone I knew in the military came out the better for the experience. But I know that for some it made all the difference--especially for me. Also, there is indeed a tongue-in-cheek aspect to my essay. If we still had a draft, would the Bush administration have taken us into Iraq? Would we still be slogging away in Afghanistan to no good effect? I don't think so. Where J. David Bell and I might well agree is that a professional military, largely staffed by an undereducated and underprivileged underclass, presents a temptation to our political leadership and a clear and present danger to our country.
But enough with my retrograde ideas. What about my "Annals of the Rod and God Club"? I'm working toward a Certificate of Excommunication suitable for framing.
Thanks for commenting. --EFP