A Time To Choose: ‘Company Men’ or Common Decency?

"To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven…
A time to kill, a time to heal…
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late"

~ "Turn, Turn, Turn," as performed by the Byrds (1965) – adapted from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

It shouldn’t have taken a deadly pandemic, nor the ordeals of a random navy captain, to delineate boundaries, in efficacy and ethics. Some two decades of endless, needless war, and the connected cause or consequence of (small "r") republican rot, should’ve been more than enough. Yet here we are. As Pentagon and political power-brokers, alike, simultaneously prove derelict in their duty to protect soldiers or citizens, and opportunistically harness pandemic-panic to accelerate ongoing regional wars, the veneer of polite collegiality – on core issues of war and peace – has reached distinct limits.

By now, most know the basic contours of the story of the moment. Captain Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, must have known that his actions risk removal. A man doesn’t rise to his position on the military totem pole without learning the ropes of chain-of-command decorum. More instructive was the rapidity to which we all (myself most obviously included) rushed to familiar battle stations within minutes of his firing. In a sense, poor Crozier proved the unwitting impetus for an outbreak of full-scale civil war in the active duty and veteran community. Given the long-latent implacability of the opposing positions, perhaps, like the less figurative civil conflict of 1861-65, the outbreak was all but inevitable.

The speed with which so many folks instinctually rallied to the defense of a Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) who hardly gives them a second thought, reflects a sort of macabre collective Stockholm Syndrome. Most only raise their objections in the inherently vitriolic, context-free, social media space, where yours truly makes (wittingly, of course) a tempting target. Many are themselves – like Captain Crozier – military academy alumni. Doth the ladies protest too much? Well, of course, but that’s hardly the rub. That widespread public critique of their precious chain of command so unsettles their tummies, is natural, and, ultimately beside the point. At issue is what their broader apologia has, and will, wrought.

Now, before getting through even the title of this piece, some critics will, quite correctly, object on the grounds that the author has almost made a career out of rejecting dogmatic binaries. True, and reason enough for caution. Still, as the power of the warfare state increases unabated, and faced with the stark (if predictable) reality that even worldwide plague can’t meaningfully slow the militarism-machine, I’m increasingly persuaded it is finally time to ditch the tactful fiction of moral or intellectual equivalency. Whilst still rejecting the temptation of total dismissal – choosing, per Camus, to not deny the opponent master as a human being, but deny him only as a master – only hard-nosed rejection of rampant strategic and ethical incoherency befits this fight for the republic’s life.

Now, make no mistake, some – but hardly all – of the navy-defenders, though most conceal it in polite company, have a proverbial MAGA hat stashed deep in their souls. It was fitting, then, that it was Trump who gave voice to the core company man argument:

"I thought it was terrible what [Crozier] did, to write a letter. This isn’t a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear-powered."

On the surface, the president’s, admittedly coarse, pronouncement sounds almost plausible. Problem is, he and his company man fellow travelers are so lost in parsing out the naval regulatory veneer that they fail to realize that what’s at stake is literary. It’s a question – as in all classic fiction – of man’s very nature, and his fundamental duality.

Crozier should be applauded for the now oft-quoted sentiment in his letter: "We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors." Naturally, he’s broadly correct, but perhaps misses a finer point: This is a war – one for the national soul. And the opposing sides are as intractable as ever.

The company men apologists function, perhaps unwittingly, as the unofficial public relations wing of the imperial power structure. They are as necessary to the machine as they are destructive to the greater good. The empire, no empire, can not function without its loyal water carriers. And make no mistake, I was, not very long ago, a dutiful Kiplingesque Gunga Din to match them all. That it took me nearly two decades, some five years of a slow-burning writing fuse, and, finally, a climactic – if, fundamentally modest – military disciplinary run-in and earlier emotional breakdown, to become otherwise, reflects my own human frailty and probably criminal negligence. So it goes.

Still, we company men – past and present – are an intrinsically dangerous lot. All who tote a gun (or an equally lethal keyboard) for the distant abstraction of the state have always been so. Which is why America’s uncritical, contemporary soldier worship is so toxic to the health of the republic. Accordingly, antiwar types must also eschew the urge to simply dismiss these specific opponents. Their very ubiquity, socially-endowed credibility, and the profound danger they present, demand that these militarism apologists be publicly and forcefully challenged. No matter the futility.

First, against my better judgment, I shall assume – strictly on the military merits – that every postulated defense of Crozier’s removal, and thus, everything the CNO provided as justification is correct. Even if so, the argument misses broader intellectual and ethical points. The "small" thinking of the company men befits small-time hustlers, and aligns perfectly with the big-time hustler serving as commander-in-chief. Still, let us cede them victory on the question of traditional military decorum: the captain’s decision to write the letter, and to carbon copy some folks outside his direct chain of command.

Even still, the company men’s reflexive defense amounts to little more than procedural quibbling masquerading as moral metaphysics. In this, these institutionalized inmates only model the behavior of their generation’s senior leaders: who have long substituted tactics for (and cloaked as) strategy. It is this they’ve ridden straight to quagmire, unnecessary worldwide slaughter, and, ultimately defeat. Consequently, that should’ve been enough to forever disgrace both these particular flag officers, and, necessarily, their mid-level bureaucratic apologists. That it hasn’t reflects the stranglehold of the military adulation cult, and the paltry permissible discourse of our binary political and media system.

Let us review, then, as an ethical – and strategic – exercise just what it is this crew has wrought, or seeks to impose, around the globe today. In each instance, the company men butt up against challenges from the courageous and coherent alike. Given the two sides’ (should be) obvious mismatch between both the moral and prudence poles, consider it a bizarre inversion of Hegelian Dialectics:

  • Company men enabling brings us Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s order that commanders plan for escalatory war in Iraq, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s push to bomb Iran – his personal cruel flourish of pandemic-opportunism. Incidentally, Mark and Mike are both West Point Class of 1986 alumni. On the other side, lay basic policy prudence, and the courageous challenge of Captain Crozier’s army-simpatico, Lieutenant General Robert "Pat" White.
  • We have company men to thank for another (joint) exercise in absurdity: the army’s recent reversal of its earlier decision to halt "most training, exercises and nonessential activities that require troops to be in close contact." Instead, the Pentagon sent 4,000 soldiers and marines into the desert alongside Emirati "allies" for the "essential" Operation Native Fury. Therein, the partnered force seized "a sprawling model Mideast city," presumably as practice for the real thing in Iran. Since plenty of company men have, like myself, been in the doctrinally shoulder-to-shoulder "4-Man-Stack” required to "enter-and-clear-a-room,” even they must realize its incompatibility (to put it lightly) with social distancing. By defending the military’s veritable "cult of readiness,” the company men find themselves at odds with CDC guidelines and ole Doc Fauci himself.
  • Winning the prize for irrational morbidity, it is company men who support the maintenance and tightening of the U.S. sanctions stranglehold around the world, currently wielded against such exaggerated "enemy" threats as Cuba, Venezuela, and, of course, Iran. In their deadly enabling of America’s epidemic exacerbation, here the company men find themselves opposed by the United Nations, public health experts, the consensus of the international humanitarian community…and basic decency.

Long before all this, the same folks also gifted us – and many still unrepentantly defend – the first war to forever change my life: the 2003 Iraq invasion. We may never know just how many innocents died in the consequent – and far less metaphorical – civil war, but estimates range from a modest 207,000 to a staggering 2.4 million. This historic disaster alone should’ve been enough to permanently discredit the obedient company men, and their venal masters, some time ago. Since it so far hasn’t, I implore you: Defy and reject their rubbish wherever you see it. Duty, and decency, demands it.

The company men, many dear personal friends among them, ought to be ashamed of the side they’ve chosen. Their (almost) unforgivable sin: a "lack [of] imagination when it comes to other people’s deaths."

Yet, while I’m perfectly at peace with my position, with the side I was proverbially built to take, in these times, well, it feels as though, per Rupert Brooke, on "this side of Paradise…There’s little comfort in the wise."

Suffice it to say that Captain Crozier probably feels the same. He just tested corona-positive.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen