It's too hot for outdoor activities in New York, so off I went to the cinema. Winter Bone—if you haven't seen this extraordinary, woman-directed film about a family in trouble in the Ozarks of Missouri, I recommend it. Grim it is. Irrelevant it is not.
Winter Bone features a 17-year-old girl, the sole supporter of her catatonic mom, and two younger siblings. Put up as collateral on their disappeared father's bail, the family's about to lose their house. Seventeen-year-old Ree looks longingly at the ROTC drills in the high school she had to leave. The best possible scenario for her is military recruitment. Actually, it's the only out on offer, and the $40,000 signing bonus could save her family's house.
Winter Bone made me think of Michael Massing's essay in The New York Review of Books. Who fights and why? "With its guarantees of housing, employment, health insurance, and educational assistance," he wrote, "the US military today seems the last outpost of the welfare state in America." Massing's piece appeared in April 2008, before the economic crisis really hit, before unemployment reached 10% officially (and around 16% by more precise calculations—or 44 percent if you're in Detroit).
The United States is currently shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs each month. It's not just in the Ozarks that the recruiters are the only ones with jobs around. The economy shed 125,000 jobs in June. That's about the number of troops we have left in Iraq.
Winter Bone just amped up the volume on a creepy question in my head. As Massing noted, "In today’s America, the hunger for a college degree is so great that many young men and women are willing to kill—and risk being killed—to get one." And what happens to the vets when they have their degree, or when they don't want one or already have one?
We've long heard about fighting people over there so we don't have to do it here. Is the colder truth becoming that we're sending people over there because we sure can't employ 'em over here? And we're scared to death of what unrest might come with a massive return of men and women who've served and endured—and who expect something better for their families than starvation wages, and no social services when they get back?