(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here. To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.
And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)
Like TV shows, people in real life can jump the shark. General Petraeus jumped the shark when he took over command of Afghanistan. Brett Favre jumped the shark when he joined the Vikings. Today, we have to ask ourselves, are we jumping the shark? Because we’re about to argue that the universally beloved Toys for Tots charity is...
Last year, we were knee deep debating what Michael C dubbed “gratitude theory”--the idea that if you just give people things they will start to love you--when we realized that one of the best examples of “gratitude theory” in action is the Marine Corps Reserve’s charity Toys for Tots. Luckily for us, by waiting a year, we can also connect it to “Our Communist Military”.
Unfortunately, this probably-not-actually-evil charity drastically conflicts with the conservative military ethos. If troops don’t believe giving gifts does any good in Afghanistan, why give kids presents in America? What good will it do? And is there anything more liberal than a government organization redistributing toys from the rich to the poor? We’ll answer those questions, then conclude with the real problem behind Toys for Tots.
The basic irony of Toys for Tots is that it involves...giving something to someone. This isn’t altogether insightful, unless you’ve been following the debate over counter-insurgency. In short, opponents of population-centric COIN argue that simply giving people things--reconstructing infrastructure, giving medicine and aid, for example--won’t win the loyalty of foreign civilians. In a civil war, the thinking goes, only violence can make people fear you; they will never love you. (If you want specific examples, check out this series.)
Critics--like former Marine officer Bing West--have said it best, “counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is a feel-good, liberal theology that is turning the United States military into the Peace Corps and undermining its ‘core competency’ — violence.”
Unless we’re in America, in which case, the Marines Corps Reserves runs one of the largest, most visible charities in the country. Either giving people things is good or it isn’t, but you can’t hate on the Peace Corp in Afghanistan then give away toys for free when you return to America.
This contradiction exposes what marines and soldiers really dislike: irregular warfare. Soldiers and marines long for a simpler time when each side wore uniforms; when wars were won by maneuver. Those wars are long gone, but Cointras don’t realize that yet.
Our Communist Military
Of course, conservatives don’t hate charity. In fact, they give to charity more than liberals! (Actually, they don’t.)
But they do think that giving "stuff" away makes people lazy. Here’s the Republican standard bearer for 2012, Mitt Romney, describing his distaste for “takers”:
“Remind them of this: If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff. But don’t forget, nothing is really free.”
Well, what the hell is giving away free toys?
There’s an inherent contradiction here that I don’t think the conservative movement--as opaque, unwieldy and uncontained by one word as it can be--has addressed: how does a belief that government handouts makes people lazy square with charitable giving?
You can’t say 47% of the country just wants free stuff, you can’t call half of the country moochers and takers, and then support a charity that just gives away “stuff” (in this case, toys). You can’t write one blog post bemoaning the state of unemployment insurance, and then in later blog post write about Toys for Tots without criticizing it.
Giving free toys to poor people is definitionally redistributionist. And if you’re counter-argument is, “Well, Toys for Tots is a charity, not some corrupt government program,” you’d be wrong. It’s a non-profit run by the United Marines Corps Reserves. Technically, it’s a part of the federal government redistributing toys to “moochers and takers”.
Tell those kids who are getting all those handouts, er, toys, to tell their mooching parents to go get a job.
Symptom, Not the Disease
We do have an original critique for Toys for Tots, and any charity giving out toys to needy children: it addresses a symptom, not the disease. It doesn’t solve the problem.
To (ab)use an over-wrought parable, it gives a fish (toy) instead of teaching one how to fish (addressing that child’s parent’s poverty). As a result, giving away toys makes people feel good about giving, but it doesn’t address the actual issue. I have always wondered about the reaction of the kids getting free toys. “Oh sweet, I live in a car with my parents in the Walmart parking lot, but I got a Rubik’s cube. Thank you, Marine Corps!”
We’re not against giving children toys per se. And since one of our family friends throws a party every year where we have to bring a toy, we’ll end up doing it again this year. It’s just not the most effective form of charity.
We think conservatives would agree.