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David Sears: American Stuff
David Sears: American Stuff


About the Author

David Sears is a New Jersey-based business consultant and author.

David's business consulting expertise encompasses executive and professional staffing, compensation and incentives, organizational change consulting, executive coaching and human resources process engineering. His book Successful Talent Strategies has been published by AMACOM. A forthcoming book Best Sellers , also to be published by AMACOM,  profiles best human capital practices in solution selling across multiple industries.

David's early career included service as a United States Navy officer with extensive sea duty aboard a destroyer and a tour of duty as an advisor to the Vietnamese Navy during the Vietnam conflict. His  book The Last Epic Naval Battle: Voices of Leyte Gulf chronicles the exploits of 60 sailors and aviators in the last and most decisive sea battle of World War II.

David has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MS in Industrial Relations from Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

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August 22, 2005

[Have an opinion about the issues discussed in this column? Sound off here.]

The New York Times front page photo (August 13, 2005) shows four soldiers at ease, surrounded by wood-paneled, air conditioner-mounted walls. The accommodations are not plush -- more dorm room than living room -- but they are well stocked with gadgets. There is a big screen TV and a wide screen laptop computer and probably a good sound system. One soldier sprawls on a beanbag chair, another leans back in a high back padded desk chair. A third cradles a guitar, eyes intent on his fretwork. All four soldiers are in desert cammies. It's after hours in what the photo caption describes as an "almost-home away from home." -- Camp Liberty in Western Baghdad.

The scene would probably work well as a recruiting poster. It's a photo to warm the hearts of stateside friends and family. It shows respite from peril. It shows a measure of comfort. So, what's wrong with this picture?

The title of the front-page article that accompanies the photo gives one clue: G.I.'s Deployed in Iraq Desert with Lots of American Stuff. The lead paragraphs (describing the life of another National Guard soldier) tell the rest: “First Lt. Taysha Deaton ... went to war expecting a gritty yearlong deployment of sand, heat and duress, but ended up spending her nights in a king-size bed beneath imported sheets and a fluffy down comforter ... She also acquired a refrigerator, television, cell phone, microwave oven, boom box and DVD player, and signed up for a high-speed Internet connection. 'We had no idea conditions were going to be this great!' said Lieutenant Deaton.”

If the conflict in Iraq ends badly -- in an unbearable toll of casualties, in a sectarian civil war, in an expanded haven and training ground for global terrorists, in a hostile theocracy aligned with Iran -- there will be no shortage of dismal turning points and images. There will be the misread intelligence concerning Iraq's phantom WMDs. There will be the haunting and damning photos from Abu Ghraib. There will be the roiling insurgency and the limb-tearing carnage of its weapons of choice: IEDs.

But there will also be, at least for me, this iconic photo -- and with it the suspicion that our soldiers may have gone to war principally to protect our consumption of "American Stuff." If we are waging a struggle for ideas and ideals (if democracy is indeed ‘on the march') then we may well lose -- if the developing world sees (as it may in this photo) our ideas and ideals reduced to digital, wireless and high definition. While many Iraqis can find no oases of safety, and no reliable electricity, water or fuel, the "American Stuff" in their midst hums on.

The point here is not to begrudge GIs far from home in a deadly place at a dangerous time some elemental comforts. Who among us would refuse these digital distractions if they were in reach and served to take our minds and bodies away from the perils just outside the gate? The point instead is to recall what this sort of photo implies for our country and its global priorities -- because what I see here is more déjà vu than discovery.

The memory: I served on the outskirts of the Vietnam War -- in-country for a year as a naval advisor but billeted in Saigon, well-removed from the fighting. I lived in the Meyerkord Hotel, fifteen or so stories of concrete high rise not far from the presidential palace. The Meyerkord was not plush, but it was (mostly) air conditioned and relatively safe (the hotel had apparently been assaulted during the 1968 Tet offensive, but by the time I arrived, security had lapsed to a single shotgun toting lobby guard). The Meyerkord life was also in sharp contrast to the subsistence of most Saigon residents, never mind the Vietnamese peasantry.

Sharper contrast still was just a bus or cyclo ride away at the Army's MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) headquarters near Tan Son Nhut airport. MACV was a riot of "American Stuff," 1960s-1970s style: heavy caliber radios, stereos, tape decks, air conditioners and appliances. Vietnamese base workers (some of them surely spies and many of them up to the brims of their conical hats in black marketeering) could pause in wonder, bemusement or rage at hordes of Americans moving among barracks, PX, clubs, gyms and pools. And, back in Saigon there was more: There were the lights and guilty pleasures of Tudo Street. There was the general ease of having hard currency in a Third World economy. For some Saigon warriors, life was so good that they routinely clamored to re-up for a succession of one-year tours.

Meanwhile the rest of us -- the homesick boots on the ground, the commanders, the politicians and most of all our families -- were by then yearning for us to get out. But we were stuck, and while we were, we displayed all the (sometimes) inadvertent but (usually) obnoxious markers of an occupying army. (I say this with abject apologies to the soldiers, sailors and airmen on the front lines and out in the boonies; their lives were and are the opposite of ease and luxury). Few of us were walking advertisements for America's good intentions in Southeast Asia. And so it seems to be now about our presence in the Middle East.

So, who's to blame now -- and for what? To my mind, it runs uphill. The dorm room grunts may be least to blame -- they are young, naïve consumers who, at worst, are seeking respite from boredom, loneliness and often-real danger. Their commanders shoulder more of the burden (most likely in direct proportion to their rank). Am I right to suspect that their troops' lives of consumer luxury is only a down market version of their own? (Those up and down the chain of command who cling to the self-righteous belief that they are deployed only to help the Iraqis, should at least cross check this belief against their after-hours lifestyles.)

But, as usual, in the timelessly adapted words of Pogo: "We have met the bigger enemy and they is us." All of us back home who think, live and act as if foreign policy, foreign intervention and war is somehow separable from the comfortable bastions of our economic catbird seats. The battle of ideas and ideals is a battle of perceptions. We may be well-intentioned, but, in the eyes of much of the world, the ideas and ideals of "American Stuff" is not always a winner. We should at least keep this in mind when we get worked up to lecture posture or intervene on the global stage.

I've spent some time during the past months speaking with card-carrying members of America's "Greatest Generation" as I researched and wrote a history of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Many in this generation are leaving us now and it has been a unique gift to be able to tap into fragments of their memories, beliefs and values. They fought a war that truly was about ideas and ideals -- at a time when global freedom and humanity genuinely hung in the balance.

I'm not naïve enough to believe that this generation of soldiers, sailors and airmen did not have its own operators and cushy versions of "almost home away from home." I'm also not naïve enough to think that our economic self-interest should have no connection with our current global policies and actions. But, in seeming sharp contrast to what is happening today, the Greatest Generation's sacrifices were for genuine values and for safeguarding a meaningful future. They can claim, from the vantage of sixty years of history, to have battled for the broad well being of humanity rather than the narrow self-interest of consumption. Later generations may be trying to sneak by on their reputation.

While I hope this is not true of my (Vietnam War) generation and of this latest generation, the verdict is still out. At any rate, I know this: If we finally prevail in the global struggle for ideas and ideals, it will have to be on the strength of something more universal than "American Stuff."

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© 2005 D.L.Sears & Associates, Inc. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.



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