The full title of Jonathan Swift’s famous and savage satire is A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick.
The chilling surprise in Dean Swift’s anonymous essay is that the public benefit would be that those children could be turned into “a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.”
Keep that in mind as I quote from another self-declared “modest proposal” from the writer and decorated Marine officer Eliot Ackerman, a man with medals for service in Iraq and Afghanistan: “limiting the draft to the children of the wealthiest and most influential Americans will stymie a tolerance for perpetual war on the part of critical decision makers. I would propose that draftees be assigned exclusively within the fields of combat arms: infantry, tanks, artillery, engineers.”
From his time as a cleric in Dublin and rural Ireland, decades straddling the year 1700, Jonathan Swift had seen plenty of Irish poverty and his essay paints grim and detailed pictures of it before he gets to his suggestion that for “the Children of Poor People” being cooked and served typified how they were treated by the rich and powerful.
Eliot Ackerman has seen plenty of war, fighting, death and destruction and has offered brilliant writing about them in novels like Green on Blue and Waiting for Eden, but telling about war is as different from being in war as the difference between dining and being the main course at dinner. So, Ackerman’s “modest proposal” substitutes the children of the rich and powerful for Swift’s impoverished ones, and exchanges doing service at the front lines of warfare for being served for dinner, but keeps the same logic — see the reality, feel the pain, work for change.
In Twenty-First Century America, few people are exposed to the reality of war, and even fewer feel the worst pains — of death, injury or just the horror of the battlefield. They come to the armed forces disproportionately from communities of poverty and color. More and more under-represented at the front lines of battle are the children of wealthy families, or even those from wealthy zipcodes, much less the children of such clubhouses of power as the White House, Cabinet, Senate or House of Representatives.
This maldistribution of consequences has shaped American policy and let American leaders escape accountability for the human and financial costs of the past 30 years in which warfare has been proliferating and unending.
Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer professor of international relations at the Powell School at the City College of New York, a senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, and a fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.