Worshipping the Military, or the Society it Defends?

On much of the Right the U.S. military has become sacrosanct. Those most enthused about making war around the globe while never donning a uniform seem most determined to turn the Pentagon into a national idol. But if we are to have a national idol, it should be our system of ordered liberty, which the military is tasked to protect. Our democratic republic, and the larger civilian society surrounding it, are the end; the armed services are the means.

America’s founders were not fond of standing militaries. They suffered under the British occupation and through war with British regulars and German mercenaries. For years the famed Boston massacre was commemorated by notables denouncing standing militaries.

Although some nationalistic colonists, such as Alexander Hamilton, desired a strong nation state, the majority of newly free Americans feared creation of a permanent military establishment. Despite the Constitution’s grant of authority for the federal government to employ regulars, early administrations primarily relied on state militias. Until the Cold War the U.S. maintained only a modest standing army in peacetime.

Gunpowder politics won some war heroes the presidency – George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and Ulysses Grant come to mind. But most early presidents were noted more for their political than military skills. And some victorious soldiers, such as Winfield Scott, were notorious political losers.

Little changed even as the U.S. entered the more militaristic 20th century. Military service in Cuba enriched Teddy Roosevelt’s resume, but his New York political success propelled him to the presidency. Even then he lost in 1912 to Woodrow Wilson, a man about as divorced from military service as, well, the passel of neocons who today push for war with any number of nations around the globe.

Even America’s successful generals of World War I ended up respected rather than venerated. Indeed, after World War I the military was a backwater, especially as Americans grew disillusioned with the disastrous impact of the supposed war for democracy.

During World War II most men passed through the military, which at its peak hosted 13 million men in uniform. Cold War conscription ensured that military service remained common among men even in nominal peacetime. The military provided a shared, if not always positive, national experience. Too many people suffered through the indignities of military life to exalt it.

The Vietnam War changed everything. More men evaded or avoided service. The military’s role was increasingly perceived as oppressive and immoral. A sizable portion of the population became hostile towards or at least embarrassed by the military’s involvement in Vietnam. Some of these people, sadly, turned their anger against individual service members.

Since then the military’s image has dramatically rebounded. The Reagan administration turned the All-Volunteer Force, which endured a difficult birth in 1973, into a dramatic success. Later military successes – against lesser opponents, to be sure, but notable successes, nevertheless – increased respect for the military. While scandals bedeviled civilian institutions, the armed services proved their effectiveness.

Moreover, the fact that military service was voluntary highlighted the sacrifice made by military personnel. Those serving in difficult circumstances chose to eschew the greater material rewards and physical safety of civilian life. Military life is hard, as I’ve seen personally, with a father and brother-in-law, as well as numerous friends, who made the military a career. They deserve praise for putting on the uniform, choosing a lifestyle that most Americans, including me (and so many of today’s ivory tower hawks), do not want to adopt.

But some on the Right have moved well beyond respect for military service. They are demanding that the military – as an institution, and its members as individuals – be placed on pedestals beyond criticism. Of course, generals always have been involved in politics, and decisions by generals always have had enormous political impact. But, conservatives now gravely intone, generals are to be praised and affirmed without question … at least when supporting the Iraq War.

For instance, MoveOn.org’s attack on Gen. David Petraeus set off a landslide of professed outrage on the Right. Most of these observers had cheerfully trashed retired generals who criticized Bush administration policy. Conservatives ignored the fact that many within the military, including Adm. William Fallon, the theater commander, disagree with Petraeus on important issues. And conservative warhawks were unconcerned by rumors of the General’s potential political ambitions.

Rather, the Right decided that any attack on Gen. Petraeus was not just unconscionable, but treasonous. I found MoveOn.org’s ad to be unfair and nasty, but hardly beyond the pale in a robust political debate, especially one in which which the administration, on behalf of which Gen. Petraeus was speaking, had repeatedly and shamelessly misled the public. Once he began representing this administration’s war policies, he lost any presumption of impartiality, accuracy, or believability. MoveOn’s attack was obnoxious, not obscene.

Even worse, however, the Right has taken almost any criticism of the war to be an attack on the military. To argue that the war has been hopelessly bungled and the administration’s expansive goals have been hopelessly unrealistic is routinely attacked as desiring America’s defeat. Criticism is taken as the equivalent of defeatism and treason.

Indeed, all Americans are viewed as having an obligation to slather praise on the military, irrespective of its performance or the validity of the cause in which it labors. The armed services are seen as a tragically fragile flower. The slightest criticism at home, in a democratic republic which loudly proclaims the importance of government accountability around the world, is said to threaten troop morale. That is, without a constant refrain of Hosannas, irrespective of the facts on the ground, American troops will feel like quitting and going home.

This perspective would be silly if it was not so dangerous. An administration and conservative movement which together irresponsibly pushed the U.S. into an unnecessary war must not be allowed to exempt themselves from criticism in the name of honoring the troops. While some service personnel in battle might find an open, vibrant political debate at home to be disconcerting, as citizens they must understand that the democracy which they serve requires open, robust political debate. People who can endure guerrilla combat in Iraq can endure criticism of administration policies in Washington.

Beyond the routine political demagoguery is a cultural attitude on the Right which seems to treat the military as an institution superior to civilian organizations. Often there is reverence rather than respect for the military. This stands the American experiment on its head.

It must be clearly understood: War is not a high ideal, let alone the highest ideal. War is hideous, a monstrosity. While it sometimes leads to the most sublime sacrifice and heroism, it more often results in unparalleled barbarity. Even good people often end up doing horrible things. Economies are wrecked. Communities and societies are destroyed. Institutions are eradicated. Families are broken and dispersed. People are slaughtered and maimed.

Killing in war – so often widespread and indiscriminate – may sometimes be necessary in a dangerous world where evil men gain control of powerful nation states. But war should always be a last resort. The very notion of a war of choice, the view that unleashing war is a matter of discretion, is outrageous. War is not just another option. War inevitably means death and destruction. And, as evident in Iraq, like in so many other supposedly easy conflicts begun with irresponsible frivolity by foolish politicians, wars rarely turn out as planned. Even the most supposedly humanitarian military action usually has non-humanitarian consequences.

Morever, military service is not the most honorable human endeavor. In the best case, of course, it is honorable – sacrificing to protect one’s family, community, and country. Sacrifice in war that often includes injury, maiming, and death. Sacrifice that puts others before self.

But it is not always honorable. One can easily point to foreign militaries which have behaved in ways that violate many of the principles which Americans hold dear. One can also point to earlier American forces – during the Mexican-American War and counter-insurgency campaign against Filipino independence fighters, for instance – which acted dishonorably, sometimes under orders, sometimes not.

One can even point to discreditable military actions today. The modern U.S. military is very good, but it is not perfect. Of course one should recognize the complexities and exigencies of war before rendering judgment on the actions of its participants. But one still must render judgment on military actions. Doing so is particularly important when the military purports to represent the highest ideals in acting for humanitarian purposes.

Indeed, American military action often does nothing to promote the ends officially advanced. In Iraq, as in Bosnia, as in Vietnam, and as in most every other conflict, war supporters routinely opine that servicemen and women are “defending our freedom.” But that is almost never the case. Neither invading nor occupying Iraq had anything to do with preserving the liberty of Americans. Bombing Serbia did nothing to preserve American freedoms.

Frankly, the failure of U.S. wars to advance American liberties is evident throughout U.S. history. The War of 1812, while arguably justified by repeated British provocations, was notably imprudent at the time and was motivated in significant part by an avaricious desire to seize Canada. The Mexican-American War was a matter of pure continental aggrandizement. The Spanish-American War and ensuing suppression of the Filipino insurgents were imperialist excursions at their worst.

World War I was an unnecessary and foolish leap into an imperial slugfest in which no participant had clean hands. Moreover, the U.S. managed to transform the prospect of a negotiated peace into a one-sided allied victory, which led to a far worse conflict a generation later. Without the Versailles Treaty there would have been no Nazi Germany, no Adolf Hitler, no German Blitzkrieg, no Holocaust, no World War II. Thank you, Woodrow Wilson.

Involvement in World War II and the Cold War was much harder to avoid, given the threat of hegemonic domination by Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union. Washington also helped set up the circumstances leading to the Korean War, entangling the U.S.

But the Vietnam War – effectively taking on France’s discredited and useless colonial empire – was another completely unnecessary tragedy. Indeed, though war proponents warned that losing would have catastrophic consequences, the result turned out to have virtually no geopolitical impact. Within two decades the Soviet Union was gone, China was reforming, and Vietnam was pushing for relations with America. So much for protecting the U.S. from anything, let alone defending American liberties.

Of course, that doesn’t mean military service is not honorable even when the ends determined by politicians are imprudent, foolish, and dishonorable. But honorable military service remains a means rather than an end. It is the means to achieve a peaceful, prosperous, virtuous, and free society. Achieving that end should be our highest political, and thus military, objective.

Some people find peace boring. That is as it should be. A free society, with people protected from violence at home and abroad, is the best environment for Americans to worship God, form families, enjoy friends, attend school, aid the needy, create clubs, play sports, travel for pleasure, and do the many, many other common, simple, mundane tasks that give life its meaning. People who are engaging in these activities, pursuing happiness, to use Thomoas Jefferson’s apt phrase in the Declaration of Independence, also are engaging in honorable behavior. And behavior that ultimately enriches our society. Protecting that society is why we deploy a military.

Defending this system obviously is a high calling. But the most important, most worthy, most fundamental institutions are civilian. We create a military to defend civilian society. We do not create a civilian society to support the military.

Even today, when the political authorities have thrust the nation into an unnecessary war with horrible, counterproductive consequences, we should recognize the sacrifice of the men and women who serve in the military. Their service can be set apart from the flawed cause for which they have been deployed. A military is needed in a dangerous world. Those who are willing to give up the benefits of civilian life for the rest of us deserve applause.

Certainly we should never blame those in uniform for the mistakes of their political overseers; we should never treat disrespectfully brave men and women ordered to perform unpopular tasks. Military personnel very often demonstrate courage, competence, and steadfastness in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

But we also should respect servicemen and women enough to acknowledge their moral responsibility for their own decisions. In particular, patriotic young people should ask whether it makes sense to join when their service is likely to be perverted and misused by those in power. Any family should be pleased and proud, even if understandably worried, when a son or daughter, or father or mother, joins the U.S. military to defend our liberties. However, the decision-making calculous is different for potential recruits and their families when the military is deployed for other purposes, as in Iraq.

At some point, it behooves the young men and women of America to work to end unnecessary, imprudent, and unjust wars by refusing to fight them. The issue goes well beyond Iraq. Today U.S. foreign policy has virtually nothing to do with defending America. Instead, the U.S. is busy protecting populous and prosperous allies, engaging in violent social engineering in dysfunctional Third World states, and nagging other countries to comply with the latest whims of Washington policy-makers.

Against America today there is no serious adversary, potential adversary, or collection of theoretical adversaries. Yet the U.S. possesses the most powerful military on earth – thousands of nuclear warheads, alliances with most other advanced industrialized states, a globe-spanning air force, a dozen carrier groups, and ground forces capable of defeating any conventional foe. Washington accounts for half of the globe’s military spending.

Terrorism appropriately remains of great concern. But most of what the U.S. government does – whether defense spending, troop deployments, alliance commitments, invasions and bombings, and other interventions – has nothing to do with fighting terrorism. Ironically, 9/11 demonstrated that America’s vast “defense” spending did not prepare the Pentagon to actually defend the nation when it was most necessary. Moreover, Washington’s promiscuous intervention, especially in the Middle East, evidently generated violent blowback in the form of terrorism against the U.S. homeland.

Patriotism towards country transcends any foreign policy. But loving America does not mean loving American foreign policy. Indeed, today the latter should be criticized, opposed, and resisted by those who most love their country, including anyone inclined to serve in the military.

The problem of U.S. foreign policy has been exacerbated by the break-down in constitutional checks and balances. The Constitution mandates a declaration of war before the president plunges the nation into hostilities. But presidents now routinely claim the right to unilaterally wage war and Congresses, irrespective of their partisan composition, usually refuse to constrain the president. As a result, the military has become the president’s personal army, available to promote whatever ideological whim, no matter how fantastic, that motivates him and his closest advisers.

As a result, members of the service and potential recruits are the last line of defense for American liberties. Indeed, the AVF, by relying on volunteers, gives average people, and especially young people, the power to end American involvement in counterproductive occupations and wars irrespective of what Washington politicians desire.

The military and its members deserve appreciation, honor, and respect. But not worship. The military exists only to protect civilian society. And members of that civilian society are entitled, even required, to conduct a robust debate over what uses of the military are proper, moral, and prudent. That debate is most important when the conflict has gone badly, administration deceptions have been exposed, presidential promises have been unfulfilled, and executive incompetence has been routine. Like today.