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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Military and Us — A Problem

As some of you know, several years ago Patty Campbell and I edited War Is, a collection of interviews and stories about the experience of war. Our purpose was to give teenagers who faced a decision about entering the service — and, though we did not at first think of this, the families of those in the service — a resource for understanding what it is to be in combat. Several other YA books, fiction and nonfiction, have been published dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan. All good. But, as this survey shows,, there is a much larger issue developing here than the lack of coverage in books for young readers of one war or another. We really are becoming a split society with a professional military that the general public admires from afar, but does not know, understand, participate in, or can meaningfully criticize. That is dangerous both to the public and the military. And there is a way in which we who deal with K-12 kids are complicit.

Next week I am going up to Jamestown, NY to run another workshop on the Common Core. In my last trip to that area librarians were asked to bring and share some of the NF books that circulate well in their libraries. A big favorite was a Capstone series that offers cross-sections of the latest and greatest in military technology. Anyone who reads this blog can picture that subset of kids, mainly though not exclusively boys, who would keep those books off the shelves and soon enough committed to memory, “did you know the XYZ can go QRS speed…” But what happens to that passion as those same readers leave upper elementary school and begin to study US and World History in middle school and high school? Do we accord their interest in war the same attention we accord to kids interested in dating tips when your boyfriend is a vampire? In other words, we do not foster and thus develop that interest in war — it becomes a sideline, a track for those few who will enter the military. Of course it is not us, librarians, teachers, editors, authors who create the split in the first slide — 1% of our population serves, 99% does not.

As a later slide in the Pew talk shows, we lay people admire the military — it is the only institution we do admire, more so than the church, or business, or, certainly, government. But that is a distant admiration. So what are the dangers? Remember the history of South America, where, over and over, when governments were disfunctional, the military — deciding that only they had the organization and will to save the country — would take over. That is not likely to happen here — but as Congress cannot agree on what day of the week it is, and world economies teeter, one can imagine scenarios in which it could. But there is a danger to the military as well — our army had been envisioned as citizen soldiers — you and me, the WW2 movie where the rich kid and the poor kid, the tough talking NYC brat and the cowboy with a drawl, fought and died together. The army was us at war. What happens when the army becomes (or has become) a sealed in culture of its own, out of touch with you and me? Nothing good for either side.