There’s little doubt that two of my older brothers, Paul and Pete, joined the Army to escape the cotton field. Not that they were lazy or averse to hard work. They weren’t. It’s just that they both had been in the cotton fields since they were 12. They weren’t the only Southern boys who took refuge in the military.
Interestingly — and fortunately — both of them enjoyed the military life. Not the horrors of battle, but seeing the world after World War II ended. Paul had served in Italy; Pete wound up in Belgium, specifically at the Battle of the Bulge. Both made a career of the military.
Like my father, Paul and Pete were avid readers. They never saw a newspaper or magazine they wouldn’t absorb. By the time I was 15, Paul and Pete were 40 and 38; my father, 65. At our house a 15-year-old would not inject himself too much into an adult conversation, but he would ask questions, listen and learn.
Learn I did. Because of the intense labor these brothers and their father shared and endured in the fields, they developed what must be called a brotherhood. By the time I was old enough to work, my father had downsized from fields to “patches,” much smaller areas of crops rather than vast, endless acres. Many times he reminded me that I didn’t have as rough a life as Paul and Pete.
After retiring from the military, Paul landed in Alabama, Pete in Texas. The most stimulating times of my youth were when they managed to come home at the same time, thus enabling me to eavesdrop as they and my father discussed their days in the big fields, the war, Churchill, Truman and McArthur, Eisenhower and the new young President Kennedy.
I’m 17. Paul and Pete are at our house. Paul, the biggest talker, always speaks first. “We proved what the United States has. There’s not an army anywhere that can whip the United States.”
“Be careful, now,” my father retorts. “I wouldn’t say that. You never know.” Pete, a quiet man who didn’t like to talk about the war experience, adds, “All I know is I must have shot and killed more boys my age than I could count.”
That comment quelled the topic of superiority and turned the conversation to another topic in which we are engulfed today, that of the role of our military. A few months earlier in his farewell address in January of 1961, President Eisenhower had warned, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought by the military/industrial complex.”
The beloved “Ike,” a WWII hero, went further. After introducing the expression “military/industrial complex” to America’s political lexicon, he added, “Great and sustained spending for defense and war creates power groups that could disastrously harm the nation’s future.”
Power groups? Created by war? Yes. War is profitable for many and always has been. But why have so many politicians in America encouraged war? Was novelist Taylor Caldwell right in claiming that wars are always promoted by rich industrialists and their political friends? With Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syrian “conflicts,” the U.S. has been in a permanent state of undeclared war since the last declared one ended. But dead is dead and most of the deaths in the undeclared wars have not been the sons of the industrialists or politicians, but the Pauls and Petes of America’s heartland.
Long before Eisenhower’s warning about the “military/industrial complex,” James Madison stated, “No nation can maintain its freedom in the midst of continuous war.” Was the esteemed Founder foreshadowing an unofficial alliance between the nation’s military and the defense industry that supplies it? Did he foresee a powerful vested interest, a relationship between the government (politicians) and defense corporations? I don’t know, but the question is not far-fetched.
President Trump, as he promised while campaigning, is pulling back from America’s role as policeman of the world. The brave Kurds, who will be most immediately affected, were not an issue when Paul and Pete were alive, but the role of the U.S. military was. And believe it or not, when Paul, Pete and my father’s conversation turned to Eisenhower’s farewell address, Paul the military hawk (Pete was almost a dove), agreed with Eisenhower.
Perhaps he, like Eisenhower, knew what war was like and believed that you should fight a war to win or come home. Declared wars typically end. “Conflicts” don’t. Have we noticed? And there are indeed profiteers of war. Have we noticed that?