A recent article in the satirical newspaper The Onion broke the news that, according to their headline, “800,000 Privileged Youths Enlist to Fight in Iraq.” The mocking article reported that students from Dartmouth and Duke were skipping out on bar exams and homes in Brookline, Mass., to help our nation succeed in today’s Mesopotamian battleground.
Like most successful satire, The Onion based its article in truth: Middle- and upper-middle-class young people — most of this campus — are underrepresented in today’s military.
But the cause for the under-representation of college students in today’s military may not be explainable by an economic or class-based argument, just as not everyone who comes from a low-income background who enlists does so because of a lack of other job opportunities.
Every potential soldier who chooses to remain a civilian has a different motivation for forgoing combat boots in favor of civvies. Certainly, for some, the motivation is economic: That investment bank will pay more and will only metaphorically ask new hires to give up their lives. For others, the motivation is professional: Someone with an interest in the history of Renaissance art or Milton’s poetry is not likely to find a niche in the armed forces.
As the satirical article hinted at, though, those who choose not to enlist are generally considered selfish or unpatriotic, the automatic mirror image of those who do choose to sacrifice personal comfort to become part of the armed forces. While certainly many of those who choose consulting over combat act without regard for the impact of their actions on society, equally many choose not to enlist for reasons that are more commendable.
Our generation has been called cynical and disengaged, youth who certainly can’t be bothered to vote, let alone motivate ourselves to hike to a recruitment center and serve our country. But rather than blaming low enlistment rates on apathy or cynicism, the News would argue that by choosing not to enlist — and, with the war such a common topic of discussion, everyone has at some point considered, however briefly, whether dress blues could be for them — our generation is choosing instead to maintain the healthy skepticism that has been part of America since our Constitution writers thought up the idea of a balance of powers. A liberal arts education is meant in part to teach us to evaluate our world critically in order to find ways to innovate and improve on it. The military, by necessity, is not a vocation that encourages questioning or insubordination, and the failure of students at institutions such as Yale to enlist in large numbers could be taken as simply our reluctance to trust anyone’s judgment unquestioningly.
As journalists, as students, as Americans, we find such skepticism and reluctance to forgo the right to question ultimately beneficial for our nation. And while we admire those who are willing to join the military and trust in the changing cast of politicians who determine our foreign policy, we also understand those who choose another way to be all they can be.