Fighting into our 60s: The real Dad's Army?Posted on: 23 November 2011 by Alexander Hay
As we live ever longer and with ever improving standards of living and medical treatment, what does this mean for those who fight for a living and the never-ending call of duty?
A Vietnam War veteran and former Marine rifleman, it is fair to say US Army Staff Sergeant Don Nicholas has served his country well in his 59 years.
In fact, despite his 60th birthday fast approaching, he remains on active duty in Afghanistan. And yet, his biggest fear isn't spending another year on the front lines. To the contrary - it's retirement.
Nicholas, who will be ordered out of the battlefield this summer due to age restrictions, is fighting to re-enlist so that he can remain a soldier as long as he's physically and mentally able to fight...
Regardless of what you think about Nicholas' willingness to keep fighting at his age, or what he's fighting for (and he makes a good point about 'taking the spot of some 19-year-old'), he does seem ahead of the curve.
Assuming it's age in numerical rather than physical terms that will lead to Nicholas' retirement, it does seem curiously discriminatory, as do some of the comments by readers of the original article, who keep insisting he retire in a condescending fashion that would insult most 15 year olds. As long as he can pass the tests needed to demonstrate he is combat ready, there shouldn't be any reason why he should not continue to serve. (Feel free to argue about whether he should face mandatory retirement below.)
If we take this into account, then a lot of the assumptions underpinning military service come into question. Like retirement itself. In the American system, you get a decent pension after 20 years of service, alongside a gentle push towards the exit, meaning that a US service man or woman can enlist at 16 and retire at 36. The British military, meanwhile, starts paying pensions for its personnel after 18 years, plus resettlement grants and a nice lump sum. And even if you serve only 2 years, you are still entitled to an army/navy/RAF pension of a more limited kind after your 65th birthday.
The broad problem with this is that more and more people are like the trailblazing Sgt Nicholas. They're not only living longer but staying healthy for longer. Given this trend, is it prudent to let experienced (and expensively trained) military personnel go into retirement when they could provide a decade or more of valuable service?
The other factor to consider is the impact of restorative technology. Some soldiers left disabled in battle have been able to return to active service thanks to advances in prosphetics and rehabilitation. As treatments (and replacement limbs) become ever more sophisticated, being retired out of the military for being too old or injured becomes increasingly less likely. As our standards of living and medical technology improve, earning your pension after 'only' 20 years of service suddenly starts to become rather extravagant. The implication of men and women fighting in wars for many decades meanwhile becomes a distinct possibility.
This would have an effect on society and a potentially major one at that. What would decades of combat do to personnel and those around them? Even Sgt Nicholas took some time off from the military, after all, and the effects of PTSD and battle fatigue result from relatively short exposures to the theatre of war. What would a veteran who fought for more than 40 years be like? To put this in context, imagine someone who could have fought from 1914 to 1959, having participated in the First Battle of the Marne and Passchendaele, through Tobruk and Normandy to Korea and the Malayan Emergency before finally claiming their pension. We would have little or no way of gauging how this would change someone or the society they rejoined.
Conversely, war has tended to be the preserve of young people being sent in to fight on the orders of frequently middle aged generals, in turn taking orders from older politicians. How would the possibility of being able to fight even in your fifties or sixties effect this set-up? Society may revolt at the idea of young people who've barely lived dying in war when there are perfectly effective recruits available who would once have been rejected for the Home Guard, let alone the mainstream army.
Given this, how would foreign and military policy be moulded by such a new paradigm? Would old men be so willing to commit to war if it was them as well as young recruits who could end up facing bullets? It's easy to send others to their deaths when you've got a few decades advantage over them. Would it be so easy if you were able to serve on the front line?
We are coming up to the first centenary of the Great War's outbreak, where a generation was decimated by poor strategy care of men who would never have to fight in a trench. To view it from the Wilfred Owen/Blackadder Goes Forth perspective of mawkish fatalism is an over-simplification, but would such a death toll have been acceptable if more of the population, including the generals themselves, would have been eligible to fight?
The Great War reminds us of how readily the old betray the young. If nothing else, then, Sgt Don Nicholas represents a sea-change, being as he is willing to fight alongside and lay his life down for soldiers old enough to be his grandchildren. War in such circumstances, and the world as a whole, would be very much different.
[SOURCE: Daily Mail]
Image courtesy of simon r jones @ flickr
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