Photo by Edward F. Palm)

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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.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The New Spartan Mother

[Cpl. James L. Reaves, killed in action, December 4, 1967]
Sarah Palin has lately carved out a new role for herself.  At Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington on Saturday, she was quoted as bragging that “I raised a combat vet, and you can’t take that away from me.”  Palin has clearly cast herself in the role of the fabled Spartan mother, who in sending her son off to battle would warn him to come back carrying his shield or on it, and with his “wounds all before.”   That last phrase was a warning that he had best die facing the enemy and not running away or his mother would be ashamed of him. 
            Clearly, a line has been crossed in America.  Despite what rightwing revisionists would have us believe, even during the darkest days of our Vietnam War, the great majority of Americans still respected the military.  The difference is that they didn’t revere and idolize the military.  And there are at least two reasons why this new attitude is not in our best interests.
            First, as women can attest, one of the best ways to keep someone down, ironically, is to place him or her up on a pedestal.  Women were once viewed as too good, too ethereal, for higher education and for careers.  Their roles as wives and mothers were idealized.  The effect was to keep them in their male-ordained places.  We’re doing essentially the same thing to our troops.  We give them glib expressions of gratitude, but that’s all we really give them—lip service.  The average American doesn’t seem to mind that we don’t have enough volunteers and that our soldiers and Marines are enduring multiple combat tours.  The result was predictable:  widespread problems with PTSD and an alarming increase in suicides.   Yet people like Palin don’t seem to feel this.   They obviously view our troops as Spartans all--born and bred just to fight.
            Second, the country seems to have forgotten that the military has a vested interest in war.  It is a great oversimplification to view the civil-military relation in America as clean cut.  Our military does indeed answer to civil authority, but the lines between civil and military authority become blurred at the top.  Generals and admirals are ambitious people, and they usually don’t get to four-star rank without having highly placed political allies.  It is naïve to think that a president gets unalloyed, completely objective professional advice from the general he places in charge of a war.  Such a general is part of the administration team, and he is expected to speak only on message, to shape his opinions and assessments to fit the administration’s views.  Just ask General McChrystal if you don’t believe that.  
            There is also the problem of military careerism.  It is difficult to be a credible warrior without a war.  To its credit, today’s military seems to have curbed the abuses we saw during Vietnam.   We’re not seeing high-ranking officers pinning medals on one another willy-nilly, nor are we seeing them trying to save face with inflated body counts and chest-thumping predictions of imminent victory.   But still the military profession demands a “can-do” spirit, even when something cannot or should not be done.  Theirs, after all, is “not to reason why,” but rather to “do and die.” 
            The military is indeed an honorable profession.  Soldiers render a necessary service in this fallen world, but it is a serious business and one that should never be sentimentalized.  What it comes down to is that a soldier’s mother sends her son out to kill another mother’s son.  Sarah Palin, and all the neo-Spartan mothers like her, would do well to remember that sad necessity. --EFP
[This piece has been picked up by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:  The New Spartan Mother.]

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