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August 28, 2005

Noblesse You First

by Ezra

I'm going to have to disagree with Amanda's post that Shakes references below. Amanda says:

War is not possible unless you have internal class warfare. War is not possible unless the rich and powerful feel free to demand the lives of the common people be sacrificed with the same ease you lose a pawn in a game of chess.

It wasn't always this way. JFK volunteered for service in World War II, was rejected due to his bad back, spent months strengthening it, and successfully reenlisted. His two brothers also served and Joe Kennedy, the oldest, was killed. George W. Bush's father fought to get his fighter's wings at age 18, succeeded, and became the youngest fighter pilot in the Navy. His son, of course, wasn't even the youngest fight pilot in the Texas/Alabama Air National Guard. Hell, he didn't even have the best attendance record in the Guard.

There was a time when the children of the rich were expected to do more than others. Noblesse oblige, we called it. And it meant that sons of Senators, of land owners, of manufacturers and business titans served in the same units and died in the same wars as the sons of those who worked for their fathers. The rich paid the same as the poor, and no one could sit back, stroking their chin, offering detached pronouncements on the desirability of war.

But there was a unity of purpose in World War II, a societal agreement -- at least after Pearl Harbor -- that this war was worth fighting, worth dying for. Vietnam, Iraq -- they weren't life-and-death for the nation, they were about better positioning. And one doesn't send their children to die for better positioning.

The run-up to the Iraq War relied on the broad societal agreement that this war should be fought. 75% agreed. But their agreement was soft. It was a shoulder shrug against tyranny. The question was never "Would you send your child to fight in Iraq?" The pollsters, in essence, asked if Americans minded if their regular news channel added a small war component. That it turned out to be a bigger, longer, more sustained programming interruption is now turning those polls. But it's not been big, long, or sustained enough. Most Americans still live lives untouched by the conflict. Americans didn't even have their tax cuts touched by the conflict.

War doesn't require class tension to be fought. Wars of choice do. And it's not class tension, it's inequality. If the folks on the fun side of the income curve don't see, touch, feel or know their distant neighbors across the graph, a war can be launched that they'll never feel. And when the government can do that, certain wars that would never otherwise prove possible suddenly become broadly acceptable. That is, they prove broadly acceptable until war proves itself to mean more than "victory", and its intrusion demands that the formerly untouched imagine how they'd feel if Uncle Sam came for a visit. And the answer, as Bush is seeing down there in the "Western White House", is that they'd cock a gun and ask him to kindly step off the porch.

The war has begun to transcend class. The rest of the country has begun to feel it. For Bush, that means a rocky road ahead. His mountain-biknig ain't prepared him for shit.

August 28, 2005 in History | Permalink


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Good post, but as for "it wasn't always like this," Amanda has the better argument, I think. Wars almost always make good use of class inequality. World War II may have been a bit different (although many a privileged young lad got out of that one), but it was the exception. The cries of "rich man's war, poor man's fight" rang throughout the first World War and had quite a bit of basis in fact. (Okay, so granted, a good number of rich men opposed the war.) Wilson overcame this little dilemma with the Espionage and Sedition Acts, a lesson perhaps not lost on our current "Wilsonian" president. Ditto with the "War Between States," as our friend John Roberts likes to call it, where $300 could, and did, get you out of the draft and put some poor chump in your place.

Your broader point is right on; the history just seems a bit too romanticized.

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Aug 28, 2005 11:46:44 PM

The poorer classes have more often than not born the brunt of the burden in war. But it's certainly not a necessary condition.

Posted by: fiat lux | Aug 29, 2005 1:58:37 AM

Yeah, Fiat gets my point. But Brad, you're right also: I probably overstated the historical case. I'm really just saying that war is not some product of inequality, without which we'd have prudence and peace. Nevertheless, war is much easier when much of society need not bear its burden.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | Aug 29, 2005 2:17:05 AM

Hell, even Rush Limbaugh's dad who suffered from the same boilbutt disability as his boy, was able to fight in WWII. And it's interesting how Joe Kennedy Sr. pulled strings to get his boy INTO active duty while Bush the Greater pulled strings to get his son OUT of active duty.

Posted by: ItAintEazy | Aug 29, 2005 9:13:16 AM

The Civil war poses even more irony on this line of thought. The Draft referenced above was a Northern Draft (am an unaware if the South had something similar or not) and certainly many rich plantation owners and their sons fought for the Confederacy.

Does that mean that the Southern cause was more legitimate than the Norths? I certainly don't think so and I would doubt that many would agree that it does.

Does the justness of a war have anything at all to do with the incomes of those on the front lines fighting the war? I wouldn't think so.

Perhaps one could argue that the justness of a society may be judged by such a thing, however, I doubt that one could find a very good application of such a principle by looking at history.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Aug 29, 2005 12:03:07 PM

In line with Dave's comment, look at how many of the 'gentry' went off to fight the Crusades.

Posted by: fiat lux | Aug 29, 2005 1:03:42 PM

The whole thing is completely irrelevant to the issue of whether the Iraq War was a good idea or not or whether it's being prosecuted effectively or ineffectively. Debate the war on the merits, if you can. Complaining about whose children serve just suggests that you don't have any better arguments.

Posted by: DBL | Aug 29, 2005 1:26:31 PM

Debate the war on the merits, if you can.

war can have no merit. the best you could hope for is a war that's better than its alternatives. the onus is on pro-war to prove its position better than non-war, not the reverse.

but yes that's the prime failure of your current culture.

Complaining about whose children serve just suggests that you don't have any better arguments.

no argument is made. he merely points out the progressive degradation of the (alleged) elites (which applies to both sides btw, not too many imams on the front lines either).

given the ritual nature of war, pointing out the acts of cowards who would rule is perfectly valid.

logic failed 3 years ago. truth failed last year. now shame makes its very last stand. the least the choir can do is to nod their collective heads in silence for a few minutes to absorb what, exactly, its eventual passing must mean.

Posted by: the shreeking ape | Aug 29, 2005 2:08:47 PM

Um, actually, the mechanism for paying your way out of the draft existed in the confederacy as well. The difference, reflecting the difference between the industrial capitalist north and the agrarian feudalism of the confederacy, was that if you owned a certain number of slaves or acres of land, you were exempt from the draft. Now, I'm sure plenty of planter aristocrats served out of their idea of "honor", just as not every northerner who could pay 300 bucks did so, but the point is that in BOTH societies, the elite were not COMPELLED to serve, as has always been the case.

Posted by: Matt_C | Aug 29, 2005 4:02:27 PM

I see your point, Ezra. I think everyone is right, though. The rich used to fight in plenty of wars alright, but they generally did so in leadership positions and with the knowledge that if they died, their deaths would be considered more meaningful and honorable than the rabble. The infantry/calvary divide, if you will.

Posted by: Amanda | Aug 29, 2005 8:27:03 PM

New trick...class warfare.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 29, 2005 8:32:54 PM

I dare say we could find some sons and daughters of rich people that have or are currently serving. The percentage would likely be determined by exactly what or who you consider rich.

But why only question rich and poor? I suspect there are any number of groups that could be identified as not serving in the same numbers as other groups.

If it were up to me (it's not so rest easy) there would be a voluntary draft. We would identify a nice round number, say 100,000. Each year we would 'draft' 100,000 of America's 18 year-old citizens for military service. The voluntary part? If they didn't want to serve, all they would have to do is say 'no'. No reason necessary.

Later in life, if they chose to be a 'leader' their decision would be on record for all to see and consider.

Many sons and daughters of the elite obviously could slide through if not selected (and the odds would be that the majority of people would not be selected for the draft). But the point would be that no one would be exempt from the possibility that their country would ask for their service. If they had visions of a life of leadership they would have to think long and hard about that decision.

Even if they had no such plans, the burden of refusing would likely not be light.

But such a draft could just as easily select you.

If faced with that what would your decision be?

Just a thought.

Posted by: BackingAwaySlowly | Aug 29, 2005 11:00:43 PM

It is my understanding that Israel compels ALL to mandatory service, both men and women. I see nothing wrong with this in war and in peace.
It serves to unify the nation, it is equal and non-discriminatory and keeps the nation's armed forces strong.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 30, 2005 8:34:07 AM

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