Monday, August 24, 2009

Frank Schaeffer: Thoughts on Military Service

Frank Schaeffer has written five books on the United States Marine Corps--books which have impressed me greatly. Here I will give some background on Frank's Marine Corps books and explain what I've learned from them.

Frank's interest in the Marine Corps began when his youngest child, John, enlisted with the Marines right after high school in 1999. John had attended an academically rigorous high school from which the graduates were expected to go on to prestigious universities and prepare for lucrative careers. No one from the Schaeffers' social, economic, and educational background enlisted in the military. Frank was shocked by his son's decision.

Frank believes that he became a better person because of John's military service. As John went through boot camp and two deployments to Afghanistan, Frank learned about service, sacrifice, and the deep connections of the military family who support each other through hardships and heartbreaks. Frank also came to see the injustice inherent in a volunteer military where the burden of defense is disproportionately borne by the middle and lower classes while the upper classes rarely serve.

These are Frank's five books about the U. S. Marine Corps:

  • Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps, co-authored with his son John. This book is about John's time in boot camp as experienced by John and by Frank.
  • Faith of Our Sons: A Father's Wartime Diary. This book is about John's two deployments to Afghanistan as experienced by Frank.
  • Voices from the Front: Letters Home from America's Military Family. This is a collection of letters from military personnel and their families, drawn from Frank's extensive email correspondence.
  • AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service--And How It Hurts Our Country, co-authored with Kathy Roth-Douquet. This book is about the unjust but growing gap between those who serve and those who do not serve.
  • Baby Jack. This is a novel about a son's military service and the way it affects his family.
I have learned at least six lessons from Frank Schaeffer's books about the U. S. Marine Corps.

SERVICE. Service is necessary. Frank explains that a life of service is not easy, but it builds character, competence, and confidence in the ones who serve. The rest of us can sleep peacefully in our beds at night because military personnel and police officers are keeping watch and defending us. Many of us can do our work effectively because assistants handle the nitty-gritty details and maintenance workers keep our workplaces clean and in good repair. Children can enjoy their childhoods because parents and care-takers create a safe and attractive environment for them. All of us need the experience of serving our country in some way, and our country needs our service.

TEAM SPIRIT. Marines know that the team comes first. They are ready to do whatever it takes for their buddies. They know they can count on each other in the extreme stress of combat. However, this is not the typical mindset in U. S. American culture, where we over-emphasize the individual. We believe, for example, that the individual has the right to make as much money as the individual can, creating a huge disparity between the very rich and the very poor. We don't see our fellow citizens as part of the same team. Marines, though, know that what is the best for the team is not always the best for every individual on the team, and they are dedicated to supporting their team.

TOUGH LOVE. Marine Corps Drill Instructors create chaos to prepare their recruits for life as a Marine, which often involves combat. This doesn't feel good to the recruits. The Drill Instructors get in their recruits' faces, they shout orders one after another at a fast clip and expect instant obedience, they punish imperfection with fatiguing exercises performed rapidly in a sweaty and itchy sand pit. The Drill Instructors love their recruits so much and want their success so deeply that they are willing to exhaust themselves with and for their recruits, to hang tough, to keep their recruits sharp and ready. Love doesn't always feel good, but love desires and works for the best for those loved.

UP-FRONT LEADERSHIP. Marine Corps Drill Instructors lead from the front. They work far harder than their recruits at the same tasks. When the recruits are ordered to do punishment exercises, the Drill Instructors will get in the sand pit and do the same exercises right along with the recruits at double time. This shows the recruits that the Drill Instructors are with them and that this level of physical conditioning can be achieved. The Drill Instructors lead by example. They are the first to wake in the morning and the last to go to sleep at night, often getting considerably less sleep than their recruits. They are far different from those leaders of our country who ask others to volunteer for military service without ever having served themselves.

MILITARY FAMILY BONDS. Military famlies form close bonds with other military families. When John joined the Marine Corps, Frank found himself embraced by former Marines and by wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons of Marines. Marine families know the anguish of having a loved one in harm's way, not knowing whether or not their Marine is safe today. Many Marine families know the heartbreak of receiving the news that their Marine has lost arms or legs, has suffered an irreversible brain injury, or has been killed. Marine families understand, support, and love each other deeply. There is a profound fellowship among those who serve.

UNJUST CLASS DIVISION. With our now volunteer military, it is no surprise that those who serve are those with fewer opportunities in life, largely those of the working class. Members of the upper class rarely serve in the military. As Frank points out, we have a situation where those who benefit the most from the opportunities available in the United States are those who contribute the least to our country's defense. There is an attitude among the upper class of "Let someone else do it." This exempts the upper class from the experience of serving a goal beyond themselves, of contributing to the common defense (once thought to be every male citizen's duty), and of sharing life with a team of buddies from different social classes and backgrounds. Frank shows that this is deeply unfair, and that it keeps the upper and lower social and economic classes of the United States separate from each other.

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