After hearing U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., explain his program to keep veterans off the streets, I couldn't help but think of Rome.
During the middle republic, military legions consisted of landowners, who, although required to supply their own equipment, weapons and armor, did not suffer the ravages of battle worrying about homelessness upon their return.
A recent Newsweek story puts the number of homeless Iraq war veterans between 500 and 1,000, a shameful, shocking red flag considering that, unlike the Vietnam era, the homelessness is taking root not just before the war ends, but in the midst of a surge. This wave of homelessness indicates many things -- misguided and myopic government spending, lack of insight among policymakers, decaying social infrastructure, toxic levels of a "suck-it-up" mind-set among soldiers -- but most of all, it indicates the extent to which civilians have grown divorced from the military. The days of military service as public service have largely ended, and our mentality is a far cry from Rome's plough-and-sword system.
Today, we non-military citizens tend to think of the military as "over there," a view that is inaccurate, dangerous and unkind. Inaccurate, because the military is not a monolith; it is people. Dangerous, because it encourages apathy among civilians, military disdain for civilians and a level of military autonomy that, history teaches, can lead to chaos. Unkind, because it allows us to look the other way when warriors come home emotionally, physically and spiritually scarred by acts carried out in our collective name.
Many Americans don't want anything to do with the military, and that is a problem. Mandatory conscription would quickly eliminate the "us versus them" gap, but any attempt at making service mandatory would probably incite outrage.
(Sunday, July 1, 2007)