Remembering and Learning

George Clausen, Youth Mourning, 1916
George Clausen, Youth Mourning, 1916.

On this Memorial Day, we should remember not only American dead, but foreign victims of unjust wars started by our elite. Most American wars lacked the moral rigor of World War II and the U.S. side of the Civil War. The Iraq War is a recent example of our nation’s penchant for aggression.

That conflict also exposed the rigidities of America’s class system. It’s one of the reasons I have written so much about educational inequality. Years ago, I read several editions of the Youth Attitude Tracking Study, an annual Pentagon report with poll data aimed at figuring out why Americans enlist or don’t enlist in the military. In the reports I read, from the late 1990s, the top reason respondents gave in favor of military enlistment was money for college.

According to a 2014 article titled “Enroll or Enlist” by economist Andrew Barr of the University of Virginia (PDF available here), the motives of those who join the military haven’t changed much. Barr noted that money for college “consistently rank[s] among the top two reasons provided when individuals explain their motivations for joining the military.” (The other reason is job-training.)

He also offers quotes from parents of military personnel.

I’m sorry . . . I can’t afford [college for my children] . . . So I’m going to have at least two children gone to the Army.

 I would have liked [my son] to go straight to college . . . He wants to have some sort of medical career . . . [But] we’re not even a middle-class family . . . Money is an issue . . . the biggest idea of going in the Navy . . . was college money.

The words “gone to the Army” in the former quote say a great deal about Americans’ relationship to their military. These words in the second quote, “not even a middle class family,” say still more.

I have often thought about all those who joined the armed forces to pay for college, particularly in the years immediately before the Second Gulf War, and what happened to them. How many were still on active duty when George W. Bush started his armed corporate takeover of Iraq? How many had left active service and started their long-awaited college careers, only to be called up from the reserves. How many were stop-lossed? How many died? How many of those who survived were wounded or suffered mental illness triggered by their experiences? How many actually managed to obtain the bachelor’s degrees they enlisted to fund?

Many Americans are locked out of college because of astronomically rising costs. This article in US News & World Report shows that college tuition rose 79.5% between 2003 and 2013. That was nearly triple the rate of inflation and nearly double the rise in health-care costs.

Why do colleges raise tuition so sharply? Because they can. Education scholars have shown that tuition increases cannot be explained by rising costs on the goods and services colleges spend money on. That is especially true for spending on faculty, given the enormous number of low-paid adjuncts now on campuses.

And, to return to a theme, the colleges with the most resources—elite private institutions—are by far the least likely to admit students who need money for college. We subsidize that discrimination by granting tax exemptions to those colleges and their donors. The cost is high. In the 2007 book Affirmative Action for the Rich, Peter Sacks wrote that “the government’s revenue loss from the charitable deduction to educational institutions, at $5.9 billion in fiscal [year] 2007, was the single largest ‘tax expenditure’ for education in the federal budget.” That money would pay for a lot of scholarships for students with financial need.

The costs of our socially segregated society are not merely financial. Members of the elite get away with their lust for war because they can fill the ranks of the military without having to draft their own sons and daughters. Low wages and lack of access to health care and, yes, education create a de facto draft of the working class.

I well remember the protests against the Iraq War. (I went to my share.) I also remember the large role played by the faculty and students of leading universities. I wonder if they ever reflected on the role their institutions play in maintaining a reserve army of desperate people who fight the elite’s imperial wars just to get a chance at college.