When I lived in New York, the only congregants I knew in the military were veterans from World War Two and a few from Korea and Vietnam. However the demographics are very different where I now live, in the greater Washington, D.C. area. I have had several congregants serve tours of duty in Iraq and Afganistan. Some are there today. Many more congregants are veterans. Some are doctors, dentists or lawyers. Others were officers. Many served with distinction in the first Gulf War. Several of my friends are active military chaplains.
All these people have changed my attitudes towards the military and the importance of supporting our troops. Since this newest war began, I have recited a special prayer for our soldiers, and those of Israel and our other allies, over the Torah during Sabbath services. The congregation rejoiced at the news announced during services last week that one of the names of family and friends I recite each week had returned safely from his second tour of duty in Iraq.
Given all that, Jews still represent a disproportionately small percentage of the active military. That is true for other upper middle class populations as well. However, the less affluence segments of the African American community are disproportionately represented in the military. Why? Because the military offers job training and college assistance, things that may be otherwise out of reach. The basic injustice is not religious, it is economic. The military understandably does what it can to make enlistment enticing. However its leveraging of a major societal injustice (that you need money to go to college) is our fault. It is our failure that we allow society to make it so difficult for the poor to go to college so that those with few other choices decide to place their life in danger by joining the military in order to secure a college education. When those decisions fall more often to one ethnic group than another, for example to the African American community, we must confront that our political culture has institutionalized racism. That is something the Jewish community can do something about, by supporting more aid for college grants and subsidized loans so that achieving a college education is not a class privilege.
There are good and honorable reasons to join the military: to serve one’s country, to help make the world a safer place, to defend innocent people here and abroad. I honor those who have made the choice to serve. It is appropriate to financially support our troops, to an even greater extent than we currently do, for the service they render in faithfulness. However, we also must be vigilant and proactive to create the economic opportunities for everyone in our country, regardless of race or class, so that those who choose to serve do so out of real choice rather than a lack of choice.