Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Thin Olive Line

Like a lot of Americans, I have just watched Ken Burns’ documentary series on World War II. Mr. Burns is a gifted filmmaker, and I was especially struck by comments made in the last episode. Both some returning troops and a girl who had been held prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines for three years mentioned how trivial civilian life and its concerns seemed after they got back. They had seen death and destruction, and when they got back civilians complained about the ration coupons. It led me to wonder about whether there is a growing disconnect between the U.S. military and the people it is sworn to defend, and whether we ought to worry about it.

On the public radio program Marketplace there was recently a story about the use of civilians to do what once would have been military work in Iraq. At one point the reporter interviews someone who was a sailor for little pay before becoming a contractor for much bigger pay:
Thirty-six-year-old Navy sailor John Shelton spent a year in Iraq working with the Army, using radio waves to disable roadside bombs. It was a hot, dusty, high-risk job. And for that he earned his military pay of about $40,000 a year.
He was surprised when he got there to see so many civilians, doing laundry, fixing generators and cleaning port-a-potties. Some made a fraction of his salary. But the better-paid made two or three times what Shelton did -- and, as he says, didn't take half the risk. And they boasted about it.

Sometimes bitterness would get the best of him. So he'd ambush unsuspecting contractors eating alone in the dining hall.

JOHN SHELTON: I'd sit down in front of him with my tray of food and say something like "So what do you do over here?" He'd tell me about his little civilian job and what he was doing. And I'd say something along the lines of "Well these soldiers are pretty antagonistic toward you, do you catch a lot of crap from them?" And then they'll just wrap themselves in the flag. And then you'd ask them: "Would you still do this if you were getting paid as little as I am?" They kind of hem and haw about it. Then I'd go in for the kill -- I'd say: "I really can't fool you. I can't f****** stand civilians. Get the f*** off this table."

We are at a unique time in our history – having an all-volunteer military and playing the role of more or less supreme global policeman, requiring not a sequence of forts staffed by a few thousand men along the Indian territories but a full-scale force capable of projecting force anywhere in the world, even in more than one place at once. The country has never performed both tasks simultaneously, and it threatens a growing gap between military and civilian views of one another and of the country itself.

At a time when we are not shy about projecting military force, that there is a segment of the population that volunteers to fight and die, and the bulk of the population that does not. I have frequently heard of serviceman who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan and remark upon how unreasonably normal life is back home, and how little Americans know about the horror of what they face in combat. While politicians fall all over themselves to be on the side of “the troops” in support of their own objectives – some Democrats are upset at Rush Limbaugh for inveighing against “phony soldiers” who pretend to be against Iraq from a position of experience, while those on the right slam for its ad personally attacking Gen. David Petreaus before he had even testified to Congress – it all seems contrived. “The troops” are rapidly being reduced to an unusually powerful pressure group in the eyes of the politicians, like farmers, immigrants, performance artists, Hispanics, etc., only more respected. They are seen as in need of more government spending by the left and in need of acceptance by the population of an aggressive, even militarist foreign policy in the eyes of the right.

And the military is increasingly different from those they are sworn to protect. Active-duty military members historically have voted for conservative candidates at much higher rates than the population. Those who see combat have an experience that almost none not in the military can comprehend, while even those who don’t see combat nonetheless must learn and lead a life of much greater discipline than many in the flabby society around them. One could imagine an outcome where the military sees itself as completely separate from society, and attempts to influence policy not for bigger budgets (as it, like all pressure groups, always has) but on behalf of the military as a distinct social group. “The military” would then take a position on all manner of political issues foreign and domestic. This would mark a permanent divorce of the military from civilians, and it would not be a healthy development.

The military of course is trained to resist such trends. The oath a military member takes requires him to defend the Constitution, and by all accounts the separation of politics and sword is something the military takes extremely seriously. Even the military being the object of politics (everybody wanting to support the troops) rather than an intervenor in it makes them an interest group beyond their natural desire for bigger military budgets, better veterans’ benefits, etc., which inexorably draws them into American political combat. The division of America, with professional military men who fight wherever safe civilians tell them to even as those civilians largely bear no consequences (because of America’s vast military power) of these choices, combined with the increasing gap in worldviews, personal habits and life consequences of those who serve and those who do not, does not, I think, bode well. That the military may become an active agent in American politics, which they are sworn not to do, and may ultimately start to subtly wield the power there that only they possess, may become unavoidable. One of the things they, like any pressure group, would seek is more power to control their fellow citizens.

What to do? Conscription, which would give at least all male Americans military experience, is unacceptable; to paraphrase Milton Friedman, free societies don’t have slave armies. A smaller military could only come at the expense of American global obligations. Absent such things, the military may be inexorably drawn into American political battles, as the military comes to view politicians as good or bad for the military, and speaks out accordingly. This would be the first road along the road to the irresistible militarization of American society. I hope not to live to see it, but such are the risks of trying to run a free country and a hegemon at the same time.


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