How do we keep getting people to put society's well-being above their own?
February 18, 2006 4:25 AM   Subscribe

Jaded Combatants:-What price the health of our civil servants, army, police, and emergency personnel?

As a direct result of some fantastic posts on the Blue about the cost in every sense of Iraq, I would like to read more about how the cultures of complaint and compensation will affect our relationships with the civil servants we put in the front line. Can you direct me to further reading around this?
Please do not derail this into a political free-fight. Whatever our feelings about Iraq, War, terrorism ect., the simple fact is we are asking a group within our society to do a job that can have long term consequences for them and for us.
Are we looking at better methods of recruitment, and is that to benefit them or us?
Service to a society was generally perceived as selfless, what effect have increasing demands for compensation undermined our, and their, status, and how will that develop in the future?
How in the future will we be able to convince men and women to put their lives on the line, when we increasingly need highly skilled and highly intelligent civil servants who can see through much of the posturing that goes on?
Sorry if this sounds vague, but I’m also asking you to help me refine my search even further.
posted by Wilder to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure I understand your question, but I can make a couple of general observations.

Traditionally, the way militaries recruit during unpopular wars is either by instituting a draft or by targeting those who can't earn a decent living any other way. Of course, the latter is what the US military is currently doing. Noam Chomsky considers this, in essence, hiring a mercenary army. I'm not sure I'm ready to go quite that far, but I do think he's correct that the situation is substantively different than it was during the Viet Nam war.

Are we looking at better methods of recruitment

Well, yes, I think there have been a number of news stories about changes in recruitment strategies. Some of them aren't working so well, of course, but that's to be expected when you're experimenting.

is that to benefit them or us?

I think we have to assume it's to benefit us. Now, as part of this process, it wouldn't be at all surprising if the pay and/or benefits offered to these recruits were increased. (Or if other incentives are offered). And sure, that's going to benefit at least some of them to some extent. But as a group and in the long run, I don't think anyone's going to argue that they're getting the better end of the deal.

the cultures of complaint and compensation

This bit confuses me. Where and what is this "culture"? Who's part of it and who isn't? What characteristics does it possess and how do we even know that it exists? And what does it have to do with Iraq veterans?

Without knowing some of these things, I'm not sure it's possible to answer this part of your question.
posted by Clay201 at 7:51 AM on February 18, 2006

Thanks Clay 201 for trying to make sense of my somewhat rambling intro. I don't want to restrict this to just army.
Recruitment: Are the methods now focussed on psychological selection of "drones" who will follow orders compliantly? are we able to better identify now those who will be less susceptible to PTSD? I frequently read "No-one knows how you will do under pressure, gunfire, extreme circumstance until it happens" and "no training can prepare you for war, life on the streets, etc.," Although it seems that most of our these front line individuals do OK, what will be the longer term implications of their experiences once back.
Regarding the culture of complaint and compensation, I'm referring to demands to be compensated for what to others seems to be part of the job. For example a few years ago some Irish army personnel claimed (with justification) for hearing loss due to firearms practise where they were not provided with ear protection. Before long it seemed that most of the Irish army were being compensated even when the hearing loss was indistinguishable from age-related loss, and even where it was proved that the protection had been provided just not used by the individual involved. It seriously undermined the public perception of the Army.
More recently I've been reading statistics of suicides among hospital doctors, which is high even correcting for the fact that they have easier access to the means. We increasingly complain about these services, and ask for compensation even when no-one was to blame. If public respect for these front-liners is on a down, where will that take us in 10-20 years?
I have read and been incredibly moved by the mental and physical cost to those we put between us and danger, but want to read around the longer term social implications.
posted by Wilder at 8:36 AM on February 18, 2006

Are the methods now focussed on psychological selection of "drones" who will follow orders compliantly?

No. The military takes just about anyone who passes their tests. The tests are most emphatically not designed to weed out intelligence and initiative - in fact, the military needs and wants people who can make good decisions in the heat of battle without relying on others for direction; also, as technology continues to be increasingly used in the military, smart soldiers are a good thing.

are we able to better identify now those who will be less susceptible to PTSD?

Probably not, but even if we were, the military can't afford to be that selective about who it accepts.

I have read and been incredibly moved by the mental and physical cost to those we put between us and danger, but want to read around the longer term social implications.

A sense of history might be useful here. The number of military in Iraq is a far smaller percentage of the US population than were involved in fighting in the Civil War, World War I, or World War II (and possibly the Vietnam War as well). If you want to understand the impact of a large number of wounded (and otherwise damaged) military coming back to civilian life, you might start by reading about the aftermaths of those wars. (Ditto for the impact on the population of deaths in war.)

Also, for what it's worth, I strong suggest using the word "military" rather than "civil servants", as, for example, when you say "the civil servants we put in the front line". When I hear the word "civil servant", I think of civilians, as do many or most other people.

Finally, as far as the "culture of complaint and compensation", it's certainly true that many US military servicemembers retire with partial, such as hearing loss, that might have been due to causes other than being in the military. But there are procedures for making such medical determinations, and no indication (or at least publicity) that they are being systematically abused.
posted by WestCoaster at 9:27 AM on February 18, 2006

Thanks Westcoaster, I think I've cast my net way too wide on this. I didn't mean only military and I didn't mean only US.
I've read quite a bit about the societal changes that resulted from the Great War and WW11, particularly relating to images of masculinity and the role of women in the public and domestic spheres. I suppose I was wondering what these conflicts might bring in their wake.
But also others, police, firefighters, etc., what we ask them to do in a culture that has grown more complacent, less willing to take risks. A culture that despite our access to violent images, distances itself from death and violence if it can afford to, and gets someone else to carry the can. For want of a better term for all these people I've used Civil servants, as they serve us the civiltas.
As I said, way too wide, but thanks for the patience!
posted by Wilder at 12:29 PM on February 18, 2006

I've pondered enlistment (never done it), and the thing that always comes to my mind is, do I trust the politicians of the country to use me for the purposes for which I enlist (ie defence of country, as opposed to some asshole's political schemes, or protecting some offshore investment of some politician's rich buddies). This was all prior to 9/11, but my conclusion was that while there were some parties in some countries I would trust, most places (especially the USA) seemed to offer little indication that I wouldn't be enlisting myself in some future Army of Darkness and used for Evil[TM]. The current contraversy regarding reasons for being in Iraq, shortly after many enlisted in response to 9/11, is to some, a case of this misuse actually happening.

So I'm thinking, this may affect enlistment negatively not simply because potential enlistees don't want to sign up when a war is going on, not simply because many potential enlistees don't agree with the handling or reasons for the war, but also because it invites cynicism in some potential enlistees as to whether they can trust their country to treat their lives as the ultimate sacrifice, and not an entitlement to be thrown around an spent at whim. Rumsfield especially gives the impression of someone playing games with lives more trivially than I would hope for.

OTOH, most enlistees are young, so it would only take 10 years for this sort of cynicism to fade - an 8-year old would not see Rumsfield the way I described, and so ten years from now, when that kid is ready to enlist and Rumsfield is long gone, there probably isn't the lingering doubt that I would have ten years from now (when the military wouldn't want me).

So I guess that's a pretty recoverable change actually.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:02 PM on February 18, 2006

Just to answer the unasked question: US military personnel in South Vietnam peaked in May 1969 at 543,000 troops, out of a population of 205 million, or roughly 1 in every 400 Americans. I believe troop strength in Iraq peaked at 160,000, or 1 in every 1800 Americans. There are other differences -- in Vietnam conscription meant that the main infantry forces were disproportionately of the 18-24 age range, while modern reliance on NG and Reserve units has meant a much higher median age. (I'm pulling together some non-coherent statistics here but bear with my hand-waving. I'm pretty sure I'm in the ballpark.) I believe that the Vietnam cohort (those of age) was roughly 25 million men, of which probably some 15 million were subject to the draft; and more than 1.5 million men served in Vietnam. Thus approximately 1 in every 10 of that male age cohort were subject to service in Vietnam, generally involuntary. (And a significant proportion of the draftable cohort were able to secure deferments, e.g. children, college, putting the burden even more heavily on a certain subset -- generally poor, and more heavily black.)

Today, the Iraq "cohort" is probably 50 million or more including women, and to date no more than 500,000 have served in that theater. Thus the Iraq "footprint" is closer to 1 in 100, all of whom are in the strictest sense volunteers. This is not just fewer people among a larger group, it's spread out by age, with recruiting reaching deep into the 20s and many roles filled by reservists in their 30s.

That alone gives a significant explanation for the political impact of the Iraq War. If we extrapolate casualty figures, about 1 in 30 Vietnam troops died in action, compared with about 1 in 250 Iraq troops.

I suspect that this war is also disproportionately creating orphans, but the increased age of the participants is offset by people having families later.
posted by dhartung at 10:36 PM on February 18, 2006

But also others, police, firefighters, etc., what we ask them to do in a culture that has grown more complacent, less willing to take risks.

It's a great deal less risky to be a firefighter today than 80 years ago, I'd imagine.

As for police: a little-known fact is that a majority of police officers retire without ever firing a weapon in a live incident.

In short, I think a strong case could be made that western societies are asking civil servants to take LESS risks than in the past. And today's civil servants are paid reasonably well, when everything is considered (police and fire fighters can typically retire after 20 years of work with at least 50% pay, and often get much more).
posted by WestCoaster at 3:14 PM on February 22, 2006

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