The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Officer Recruitment Up: Nihilism and Nine-Eleven

Tom Ricks in "From Ivy League to olive drab" comments on the (apparent) rise of elite graduates opting for the military over politics, finance and business. He explains it with two points:

The negative trend is, I think, that a significant portion of students are finishing at our best universities feeling let down and unfulfilled by the experience. It just wasn't all it they'd expected it to be. There is too much drinking and dope-smoking and too little sense of commitment to anything larger than one's own ambitions and appetites. Ultimately, they tell me, they didn't feel challenged to be more than themselves, intellectually or morally.

The historical moment is that these young men are from the 9/11 generation. Most of them were 13 or 14 years old then that attack occurred -- that is, barely conscious of the larger world. Since then, for all their conscious lives, they have lived in a nation at war. So what I think fundamentally is going on is that they are deciding that al Qaeda's attack and its consequences are becoming the defining event of their lifetimes, and they want to be part of that.

My response:

I think you are probably sadly right on both counts. University life might as well be a course in nihilism. That is somewhat unfair. The failure of universities to instill values is a reflection of our society (and consumer societies more generally). We are driven by money, sex, cars, TV and any number of banal careers. When one is working, one doesn't have quite the time to think and ponder about this. When one is studying, a mix of contemplation and idleness, the ugly, materialistic nihilism of our society becomes unbearable.

I think the second point on the 9/11 generation is also probably true, and also quite sad. I think it is sad that Americans feel so insecure today, when they in fact have never been so secure since 1939 when the Nazi conquest of Europe made isolationism untenable. We are not a nation at war. The fact some people talk and think as though we are in an epic struggle speaks to the mediocrity of this generation. As though having two 'small wars', virtually cut off from the rest of the nation, were comparable to the struggles of WW2 or the threats of total annihilation of the Cold War.

I find it sad also because the biggest security threat to America today, a nuclear terrorist attack, is not in fact one where military force is all that useful (unless we plan on invading every single potential proliferator, clearly impossible). It is much more a job for meticulous FBI agents and Pashtun-speaking intelligence officers than aimless drones or gung-ho Marines.

The only good sign is that at least some young people want to do something that requires discipline and purpose. Not that that needs to be found in the military. I myself will be graduating with a Master's shortly and, as I don't think I have the character for the military, hope to work in State or Defense.

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