“What does that rude term [chickensh*t] signify? It does not imply complaint about the inevitable inconveniences of military life: overcrowding and lack of privacy, tedious institutional cookery, deprivation of personality, general boredom. Nothing much can be done about those things. Chickensh*t refers rather to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige; sadism thinly disguised as necessary discipline; a constant ‘paying off’ of old scores; and insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickensh*t is so called instead of horse- or bull- or elephant sh*t because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickensh*t can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war.”
Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989)
“The military way is marked by a primary concentration of men and materials on winning specific objectives of power with the utmost efficiency, that is, with the least expenditure of blood and treasure. It is limited in scope, confined to one function, and scientific in its essential qualities. Militarism, on the other hand, presents a vast array of customs, interests, prestige, actions and thought associated with armies and wars and yet transcending true military purposes. Indeed, militarism is so constituted that it may hamper and defeat the purposes of the military way. Its influence is unlimited in scope. It may permeate all society and become dominant over all industry and arts. Rejecting the scientific character of the military way, militarism displays the qualities of caste and cult, authority and belief.”
Alfred Vagts, A History of Militarism: Romance and Realities of a Profession (1937)
By now, you have probably heard Howard Dean’s primal yowl a thousand times in a dozen remixes. Everyone knows (or has heard) that Dean’s anger disqualifies him for office. How can we expect this man to work with Congress, much less put an end to evil?
I hold no brief for Dean. The wishful thinking of my philosophical kin aside, a Dean presidency would likely be more of the same: more war, more spending, less freedom. Speaking as a hothead, though, I question the anger taboo. God save us all from a future where men smile as they’re smeared, deceived, and bullied.
But I hold no anger or contempt for those who merely disagree with me. Most supporters of the president’s foreign policy are decent people, either misled or acting on what public choice theory calls “rational ignorance.” I address this in part to them, for we once had much in common.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS (WHEN THINGS WERE BAD)
Every now and then, I experience a warm surge of nostalgia for the Clinton years. Not out of affection for Billary, hell no; I consider George W. Bush a mischievous fool, but as for the Clintons I used to read The American Spectator religiously, and though they never quite sold me on Mena or Troopergate, the accusations were far from implausible. But the things the Clintons took credit for bespoke their venality loud and clear, and I felt a sense of brotherhood with grassroots conservatives in thinking so. Suddenly, I could talk politics with my parents again. We railed against big spending, even as the rate of increase leveled off (that looks like something to brag about now). We demanded impeachment after Waco. We decried Clinton’s draconian response to the Oklahoma City bombing and his l’état c’est moi mentality. We howled as he bombed his way out of political crises. And we pitied at the time, I thought sincerely the victims of his pointless war on Yugoslavia.
Grassroots conservatives like my folks and libertarians like me seemed to be converging on a shared skepticism about power, distrust of official narratives, and, above all, disgust for the increasing militarization of civil society. Those were the days.
Then their guy won the White House.
MILITARISM vs. THE MILITARY WAY
This essay begins with two quotations whose length would open me to accusations of padding were not every word essential, for these passages read like a checklist of the Bush era. And no, I don’t blame Dubya or even the worst of his gang for starting this ball rolling. Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Richard Perle, and their flacks are riding the crest of a tsunami whose origins are forgotten to most. Yet they ride with glee, with teeth bared not in anger, but in anticipation of the kill. They’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. While grassroots conservatives stood against Clinton’s aggression at home and abroad, the “conservatives” at the Project for a New American Century, The Weekly Standard, and National Review mocked Slick Willie’s dearth of audacity. Now the latter crowd runs both the conservative movement and the government, and they’re running the country headlong toward the paradise Fussell describes.
That these militarists possess, almost without exception, no military, much less combat, experience should surprise no one. As Vagts notes, militarism is a sociopolitical ideal separate from and even hostile to “the military way.” The difference was clear during the run-up to war, as the best and brightest sneered at Gen. Eric Shinseki, Gen. Anthony Zinni, Secretary of the Army Thomas White, and others who projected a much higher (and more accurate) cost in men and money for a crusade to transform all Islam. For all its faults, the military way of thinking at least provides an honest context for cost/benefit analysis. Vagts’s distinction between this “scientific” outlook and the “cult” qualities of militarism is readily demonstrable: generals often oppose wars, but militarists never do.
A BRIEF SCATOLOGY OF THE CHICKENHAWKS
Since the great militarists of our day are too delicate to fight in the places they send others that sand gets in everything, and my God, the heat! they make the homefront their war zone. If it works in Iraq, why not try it here? Presenting Bush’s America, using Fussell for a guide:
Petty harassment of the weak by the strong: Or more concisely, “Dominate. Intimidate. Control.”
Open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige: Danielle Crittenden’s famous email only hinted at the power lust to come. Just look at the intramural viciousness and opportunism! For advising a more cautious (though no less certain) path to war and acknowledging the existence of Palestinians, Gen. Colin Powell earned white-hot chickensh*t from his War Party superiors. Laurie Mylroie, who is busy right now linking Saddam to the sinking of the Lusitania, put the administration’s uppity Negroes in their places. Actually, racial politics may have been all that saved Powell’s job amid the cries for his firing. Of course, demanding a government employee’s removal is one thing; accusing him of wishing to “annihilate Israel” is quite another. Pat Robertson and Joel Mowbray managed to limbo far beneath that rhetorical bar when they called on two separate occasions for the bombing of the State Department.
If they hate a warmonger like Powell this intensely, imagine what they think of their real enemies.
The paying off of old scores: He tried to kill my daddy! He hit on my wife and challenged my masculinity ten years ago! This means war!
Insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances: Homeland Security, the PATRIOT Act, and right-wing toughs keeping us safe from petty criminals, erstwhile petty criminals, and good citizens. Hey, you prosecute what you can prosecute.
Small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously [and] never has anything to do with winning the war: Anti-American, anti-Arab, anti-Semitic, anti-Portuguese, I’ve lost track of what I am. But so long as we keep those krauts and frogs out of Iraq’s reconstruction even though competitive bidding would lower the cost to me I’ll be happy.
And you had better be happy, too. We’ve got five more years of this, and after November, all political constraints on Bush and co. will be gone. More chickensh*t, anyone?