The Unquestioned, Ignored, Heroic Military

What with its title, "The Tragic Decline of the American Military", Atlantic Monthly’s January-February cover story at first blush appears to be a thoughtless pro-military screed. But in spite of that headline, and the cover asking "Why Does The Best Military in the World Keep Losing?" it isn’t a bad piece at all.

Author James Fallows isn’t making any edgy arguments here. He’s actually painfully pragmatic as he spells out the declining skills of military leadership due to politics. More interesting for readers of, however, is Fallows mentioning the strange, thoughtless respect for the military that now permeates the American public. This he ties fully to concrete facts such as how in 1945, ten percent of the US was on active duty. Now, Fallows writes, "A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once." The numbers don’t lie. The military is now very far away from most of us.

In the past, Fallows argues that the military was familiar enough for people to feel more comfortable ribbing it. In books, films, and television such as Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Americanization of Emily, and MASH, the military’s absurdities were skewered. So implicitly was war in the bolder pieces. You have to be crazy to fly more missions, but you can’t fly them if you’re crazy, so learned Yossarian. Even the less daring media helped us question the military’s competence if nothing else. Even Ernie Pyle, the soldier’s favorite journalist, gave us a down-home fighting man, not a commercial for joining the Marines.

In 2015, the military is distant and rather dusty, even as we all support the troops in a bumper sticker sort of way. They are too far away from most of us to be able to earn even light satire. They fight for us, but they are not us, so you had damn well better respect them and not think you know better.

It’s difficult to read Fallows’ piece and not feel some agreement. In regards to the current relationship between the military and civil life, what we have now isn’t working. We’re terrified to critique the military, because it is a mostly alien institution. How dare we cast aspersions on the late Chris Kyle, if we weren’t willing to join up and fight? What the hell do we know about it?

What is the alternative to this problem? Fallows offers by contrast, America a few decades ago when the military was all of us, and we had some kick-ass art that cast a serious eye on it. But yearning for the military of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s is insane, because those decades were times of brutal war, and of conscription. After Fallows’ solid, informative article – even if Fallows doesn’t suggest it himself – we’re suddenly back to the notion that maybe a draft will solve our problems. A draft makes us all part of the military. It makes wars nearly impossible to ignore, and thereby might actually help prevent them.

This is a common pro-conscription argument that even progressives will offer. But it is easy to refute, both morally and practically, by looking even just at Vietnam. A decade of fighting, 60,000 Americans dead, and some 2 million Vietnamese. Is that a worthwhile price to pay for a society that is more invested in what its military is up to abroad?

Conscription itself is indefensible. It’s slavery with an expiration date. It mandates fighting for an institution, or for a cause you may find loathsome. And again, why should we believe that it has any power to limit militarism when we have the entire 20th century proving otherwise?

(Horrifyingly enough, the same Atlantic issue has an explicitly pro-draft essay. It doesn’t even pretend to be searching for a way to limit interventions. The author simply had a good time – and there was lots of diversity in the army – after being drafted. Drafted during peace time, mind you, between Korea and Vietnam.)

James Fallows’ piece is well-reported, in-depth, thoughtful, and makes a compelling argument that a society this terrified of critiquing the military, but this disinterested in soldiers themselves, is not a healthy one. But though he admits in passing to have purposefully bungled his Vietnam-era medical exam, that questioning is as far as he gets. The fundamental implication that soldiers exist to protect us, and to "serve" the country is never really questioned. The desire to have a more competent military is implicit. Fallows name-checks a deeply subversive work like Catch-22, but there is nothing in his sensible piece that questions the fundamentally twisted nature of war.

Though I haven’t yet seen American Sniper, the backlash and backlash against the backlash that is currently brewing has a similar tone. Clint Eastwood’s previous war movies were not brainless shoot ‘em ups. His Letters from Iwo Jima even managed to make the hated and feared Japanese fighters into real human beings. But if the surprisingly antiwar Eastwood managed to turn the pathological liar who professed to "love killing" into a sympathetic human being in American Sniper, that’s not bad. Kyle was a person. His bravado perhaps is better explored by someone who wasn’t him.

And yet – Kyle was a strange choice out of all the veterans to pick and to apply the Eastwood touch. Not someone who realized the horrors of war, not someone who was destroyed by what they did. No, Eastwood picked the man who channeled all that he had done into a caricature of himself and of a good old boy; a rah-rah, I-love-killing-savages kind of a veteran.

No good will come of calling all veterans monsters. And they’re not. Of course they’re not. They get ruined by wars that we all vaguely tolerate for want of a longer attention span. They get told that joining up is a noble, brave thing to do. Then they are left by an indifferent public, and an incompetent bureaucracy that can barely provide them with medical care.

Yet there’s something paint by numbers about the mournful, gray war movie. Even if Eastwood is as nuanced in American Sniper as he’s proved himself capable of being in previous films, that is still a formula we’ve seen before.

Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle has an amazing, vicious rant about this in his standup. Watch the whole rant, but this part is particularly good. "Not only will America go into your country and kill all your people, but what’s worse, I think, is they’ll come back twenty years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad. Oh boo hoo hoo. Americans making a movie about what Vietnam did to the soldiers is like a serial killer telling you what stopping suddenly for hitchhikers did to his clutch.”

That attitude is not helpful most of the time. It won’t bring around individual soldiers to the cause of antiwar. It’s unfair to lots of individuals who weren’t on the front lines, and who made no decisions besides the ill-advised one to sign up (or maybe they were just drafted). Yet, I find it has a bracing truth to it. The best, bleakest Vietnam movies are invariably about the horrors of fighting. But they’re about the horrors that come from killing civilians. They are not movies about the horror the civilians feel when an invading army rolls on through.

The disconnect civilians feel from the military and their wars may be one sign of a broken society. So, too, is the fact that the best we can do with our war films is to show how American soldiers are tormented. With few exceptions, we just haven’t the time to portray the suffering of anyone else.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.