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Moving from the War to Law School at Yale—A Commentary by Ken Harbaugh '08

The following commentary originally aired on the October 19, 2006, edition of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

Moving from the War to Law School at Yale
By Ken Harbaugh '08

There was a popular rock song last summer with the lyrics, "Why do they always send the poor to war?" Of course, the accusation being that it’s always poor Americans who get trapped into military service.

At Yale, I hear the same sort of idea all the time. Recently a classmate said something like this: Isn’t the U.S. Army just a mercenary army? I mean, they use financial incentives to recruit, right? Should people who join for money expect us to care when they’re sent to war?

Whenever the subject of demographic imbalance arises – that’s a clever way of saying the poor do our fighting – my professors and classmates usually dwell on the unfortunate circumstances that compel certain segments of our society to enlist.

It is true that many of the people with whom I served joined for economic reasons. Some wanted money for college. Others wanted to see the world, or just leave a bad neighborhood. More importantly, though, they all wanted to do something noble in the process.

Most Yalies I talk to cannot comprehend why reenlistment rates today are so high, even in wartime. It’s because many who joined for money end up staying out of a sense of duty - to their comrades and to their country. On an Ivy League campus, so insulated from the real meaning of sacrifice, that can be a baffling concept.

Not so long ago, elite schools sent a sizeable chunk of their graduating classes into the military. These days, hardly anyone goes. Some of my classmates honestly feel the American military does more harm in the world than good. But people here are smart so that attitude is rare. Others will not or cannot serve because of policies like don’t ask, don’t tell. I sympathize but disagree with those who think the best way to fix the military is to stiff-arm it.

Most of my friends at Yale, however, won’t contemplate military service because they feel they are too valuable. To those who don’t know any better, serving in uniform seems like Neanderthalic drudgery. My friends are often shocked that many military folks, like myself, actually had other options in life. Still, why risk one’s body when the brain it holds up is worth so much?

The best answer I have depends on ideas that don’t get much traction around here, like duty and patriotism. At Yale it is easy to pretend there isn’t a war going on because so few of us have been.

America’s military has always answered to a civilian leadership. That leadership is supplied by great institutions like Yale. Yet the elites who shape our national policy are growing dangerously out of touch with the men and women sent to fight in their place.

It is an unfortunate truth that some social economic groups bear far heavier burdens than others in defending this country but for all the nuanced explanations out there, the real reason we always send the poor is because the privileged refuse to go.

Ken Harbaugh spent nine years in the Navy before he started Yale Law School last year.