What You Should Think About Experience

July 2, 2008

“The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war.  Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin.  But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.”

–Ernest Hemingway

The past few days have seen interesting public debate about the role of military experience in national leadership.  Since long before this Presidential bid, Senator John McCain upheld his military service as a credential applicable to political leadership.  In doing this he perpetuates a long-standing tradition linking military service to political leadership.

Dozens upon dozens of generations ago, civic-minded Romans were inspired by tales of Cincinnatus.  Perhaps the ultimate citizen-soldier, the man discovered he had been selected to serve as dictator in time of crisis when a VIP delegation arrived unexpectedly at his humble farm.  Bold leadership turned into legend as he was credited with preserving and strengthening early Rome while it was under attack by rival factions on the Italian peninsula.

Ever since, Western civilization has placed a premium on military service as a credential for political leadership.  In brutal primitive times, with ordinary citizens constantly facing threats from nature and warmongers alike, there was some sense in this.  Orienting governance around security policy was often necessary and appropriate.  Ancient peoples really did inhabit a world where quality of life could not be sustained without regional military supremacy.  Fortunately for us, the 21st century is not a world fraught with turf wars and pillaging hordes.

Yet it seems not all of us are mentally up to the challenges of inhabiting more enlightened times.  For some Americans, the aggression of nineteen men with boxcutters justifies a perpetual siege mentality every bit as extreme as the militarism of the Roman Empire.  Our quality of life in the modern United States is more gravely undermined by the expenses of militaristic governance than any plausible consequences of ending a unilateral arms race.  That is not to say we should leave our nation defenseless or even abandon plans to expand the numbers of active duty troops in our armed forces.  However, it is to say that an entire society deeply dedicated to military supremacy is a society that fails to engage adequately on a wide range of issues each more crucial to quality of life than new high tech weapons systems conceivably could be.

Still, the citizen-soldier archetype resonates in Presidential politics.  On one level perhaps it should.  Honorable military service reveals character traits that many voters legitimately demand of their leaders.  It is foolish to contend that military service is the only way to become a good person.  However, the crucible of war is a meaningful test.  Integrity, loyalty, and determination are difficult to fake on the battlefield.  Courage and selflessness may also be evident (though history is thick with tales of courage and selflessness that ultimately turn out to be propaganda pieces rather than events that actually occurred.)

There is no doubt that Senator McCain served honorably in wartime, endured much abuse as a prisoner of war, and went on to fulfill command responsibility.  The value and dignity of his service is only questioned by those setting up straw men — no significant critic of McCain has characterized his military record as less than honorable.  His supporters raise the specter of that criticism because it galvanizes their movement to believe he has been “attacked” in this way.

The worst of what has actually been said by anyone of consequence was a remark General Wesley Clarke made in response to a question about this link between military service and political leadership.  In a moment Senator Obama accurately characterized as artless, the general said, “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.”  The response from McCain’s supporters has been intense.  Yet what precisely is their concern?  Did John McCain never ride in a fighter plane?  Did he never get shot down?  Did General Clarke overlook something in the Constitution about military service as a credential for the Presidency?

While that remark was crude, it seems insane to reject a crude truth in favor of elegant spin.  In reviewing the documentary Carrier, I was struck by the apolitical nature of life among naval aviators.  Whenever the subject of justification arose, an overwhelming majority of pilots (as with the ship’s crew) took an agnostic view.  Rightly, military personnel in time of war do not agonize over the nuances of foreign policy.  They do their duty because it is their duty, not because the majority of them have strong opinions about which flavor of foreigners deserves to be bombed under order of the current regime. The order alone is all that is needed to act.

Provided that orders are not sadistic or inhumane (like running an extermination camp or a torture chamber,) the morality of military service demands fulfillment of duty.  Military culture frowns upon questioning orders, though questions and discussion that do not interfere with diligent and prompt fulfillment of orders do no harm (and sometimes quite a bit of good.)  Still, my broader point is that a history of being a good soldier only proves that one may retain characteristics of a good soldier.  When Senator Jim Webb attempted to clarify a crucial distinction between executive leadership and front line combat, he too was denounced for attacks on McCain’s service that Webb did not actually make.

The only real attack here, an attack entirely justified, is an attempt to change thinking about the relationship between being an effective warrior and being an effective national leader.  The very issues that naval aviators habitually avoid deliberating are those that merit tremendous time and attention from a U.S. President.  If anything, the “my country, right or wrong” attitude that helps combatants stay strong while pursuing nebulous objectives or dealing with incompetence spilling down the chain of command is an attitude that weakens one’s ability to exercise sound judgement in an executive role.  I believe even the most jingoistic Americans would, all other things being equal, rather see U.S. policy in the right than in the wrong.  A dutiful President must agonize over nuances of political decisions in precisely the ways a dutiful combatant must not.

One aspect of legitimacy in the tale of Cincinnatus is that he was a patrician with a history of political activism.  Though he was virtually conscripted to serve as head of state, his selection was not a consequence of skill with sword and spear.  It was because he had demonstrated thoughtful judgement and sound leadership in previous efforts to shape Roman policy.  His service was noble and selfless, but it was informed far more by his past political life than his past military activities.  It was the strength of his wisdom, not the strength of his belligerence, that preserved Rome during a time of great troubles.

Perhaps the closest analogs in American political life would be John Fitzgerald Kennedy and John Kerry.  They both seemed influenced by the perception, especially common among young men, that miltiary service builds reputations useful in later pursuit of public office.  That perception remains valid even today.  However, at its heart is a prejudice like the belief that tall men make the wisest leaders — an archaic misconception that resembles racism without race.  It is a prejudice that allows ignorance to be substituted where enlightenment belongs.  Still, both men risked life and limb, sustaining injuries that would cause lifelong pain, to make good on a promise to serve this nation in time of war.  That merits honor to be sure, but does it have anything at all to do with positions on security policy and foreign affairs?

The disturbing aspect of the experience debate is not that someone dared to raise such questions.  It is that the very idea of suggesting military service does not equate with executive excellence was so easily mischaracterized as a personal attack.  It is a question most civilized nations have long since asked and answered, liberating them from perpetual militarism for its own sake.

In assessing the character of a candidate, performance under fire is certainly a legitimate factor.  In assessing the quality of a candidate’s politics, performance under fire is entirely irrelevant.  So long as a contrary view remains popular, voices in the public square do well to attack it.  Real men do not cower behind the ad hominem defense when it is so clearly their opinions, not their persons, that are subjected to withering critique.  To employ that unresponsive evasion fails to address the attack even as it reveals something else — the poor character of the man who would employ such a tactic.

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What You Should Think About Military Service

November 11, 2007

“I am a soldier. I fight where I am told, and I win where I fight.”

–General George S. Patton

Though I would not compare it with something as tragic rising body counts, another unpleasant side effect of watching our nation wage a pointless war is the rise of contempt for personnel serving in its armed forces. Many is the time I’ve read a compelling blog entry or heard a persuasive public speech only to be see its appeal marred by hostile language directed at a broad category of Americans, most of whom are decent human beings willing to make a particularly difficult sort of personal sacrifice on behalf of the entire nation.

Of course there are some soldiers driven to war by hatred of others, and that is not laudable behavior. Yet most uniformed military personnel, even those serving on the “wrong” side of historic conflicts, believe that they are doing work that is vital to protect their homeland from some sort of real threat. Generally speaking, the British did not open fire on Continentals because they hated American upstarts. Confederates had much more pressing reasons to shoot at Yankees than fears that slave labor might end. Even Wehrmacht forces defending the beaches of Normandy believed their actions were necessary for the protection of Germany.

Generally war does not break out unless warmongers are involved. The modus operandi of a successful warmonger is to portray a potential enemy the source of an urgent threat to a people’s way of life, rally a nation behind an agenda of aggression, then denounce dissenting voices as traitors to that nation. The entire process is a political exercise that combines the highest levels of effectiveness with the lowest levels of ethical conduct.

Misunderstandings, even skirmishes, can occur naturally as a result of complex international relationships. Full out warfare only occurs because leader(s) make it their business to advance an agenda of belligerence. Only after such historically malicious behavior has taken place do conditions exist where dutiful military personnel are called upon to kill people and break things. Much of this destructive activity is itself unethical, but then again it is also unethical to knowingly and willingly take an oath only to break it when faced with a moral quandary.

Perhaps more to the point, from a soldier’s perspective, ordinary wartime activities are not unethical. A policy of military aggression is normally presented as something urgently needed to insure a society’s survival. Fending off foreign invaders may actually be a matter of survival. Either way, out on the battlefield a “kill or be killed” mentality may be rooted in actual circumstances. Even when it is unethical to go to war, once deployed the ethics of following the chain of command, including orders to fight, become crystal clear.

Any nation with substantial resources invites disaster by refusing to maintain some sort of military capability. Perhaps there will come a time when this is no longer true, but on Earth in the early 21st century it clearly is true. Of course, there are many ways to go about achieving this goal. I’ve always admired the Swiss approach — neutrality in foreign matters, but if anyone tries to take their land and their homes by force, a nation full of trained and equipped militia will fight relentlessly to make the invaders’ incursion as brief and painful as possible. Insofar as “peace through strength” makes any sense at all, I believe it is in military doctrines like those that shape Swiss policy.

Unfortunately, rank and file soldiers have little say in the policies of a democracy, and even less if they should happen to inhabit an undemocratic society. Where a person is born does not change the merits of acting in defense of family and friends. As such, the political and military institutions of most societies expose soldiers to the possibility that they may be called to serve without an actual grave threat to home and homeland. When moral imperatives come into conflict like this, how should one respond?

For an overwhelming majority of military personnel, there is nothing to do but follow orders. This goes beyond aversion to potentially severe punishments brought on by willful dereliction of duty. Below the highest echelons of command, the ability to carry out orders as given is required to insure combat effectiveness. A nation might as well have no defenses as to let them to be contingent on whether or not front line troops are personally inclined fight on a particular day.

It may be wise to question policy, and surely it is wise to temper a combatant’s fervor with enough reflection that every act of violence is also an exercise in reluctance. Yet both the duty of a citizen to protest bad policy and the duty of a human being to avoid victimizing others must take a back seat to the duty of uniformed military personnel to cause death and destruction on command. Exceptions to this come only in the form of truly extreme abuses, like an order to decimate harmless civilians or an order to torture a defenseless captive. If it is plausible that a properly issued command serves a legitimate military purpose and there is no opportunity for discussion, then it is right to take action.

Yet there is another realm of exceptions beyond orders calling for the deliberate abuse of non-combatants. At the highest levels of military command, it is inevitable that national policy will become part of the discussion. Even if President Bush never actually listens to contrary opinions from the top brass, his public insistence that he defers to the judgement of commanders in the field invites efforts to establish healthy channels of feedback percolating up through the chain of command. Heck, even in a dictatorship, senior military personnel should be able to speak candidly with the potentate. Anything less creates a disconnect from reality that exposes combatants in the field to greater danger while diminishing the prospects for success of the overall military mission.

When I encounter schadenfreude regarding the hardships faced by today’s active duty military personnel, I see that as an ugly sentiment. No doubt there is an element in the services that did volunteer just so that they could “go kick some raghead ass.” Yet I am confident an overwhelming majority of those unfortunate Americans find themselves risking real danger for reasons that are more wholesome than sinister. On this Veteran’s Day I want to extend my thanks for their contribution to the strength of the United States of America.

I would rather my nation be strong than be weak. Yet I would also rather my nation would be right than be wrong. The only component of military condemnation I can support is criticism of senior military commanders associated with existing Iraq policy. Except for Gen. Shinseki, I am not aware of any top tier officers willing to end their careers in order to speak truth to power regarding the planning and conduct of that disastrous misadventure.

Going to war without question because your commanding officers do not want to hear your questions, or even because you’ve been led to believe the war effort really is sound defense policy, is merely the fulfillment of duty for almost all positions in the armed forces. On the other hand, supporting a war effort when your position carries with it the duty to raise concerns, being educated and informed enough to know better than the civilian leadership in this matter, is disgraceful conduct.

I can appreciate that speaking out means being denied access to a defense industry gravy train that could insure a general’s grandchildren’s grandchildren are born wealthy. That form of corruption comes with a powerful lure. Yet officers atop the military hierarchy should have greater moral fiber than to think so selfishly. Brave men and women serving so far from home will pay for that enrichment with spilled blood, lost limbs, addled minds, or even the ultimate price.

To those vaunted few with the position to speak truth to power regarding the folly of ongoing Iraq policy, I urge you to take this time to reflect on your duty to front line combatants as well as your duty to the nation as a whole. Think about the virtues attributed to you at ceremony after ceremony throughout your career. Ask yourself when is the last time you showed real courage and made real sacrifices for the good of the country. It is not too late for you to get back on the right path.

As for everyone else out there who does serve in some branch of the U.S. armed forces yet doesn’t have the ear of POTUS or VPOTUS or SecDef, I thank you for your service. Your work is among the most difficult work imaginable. You honor this nation by doing your military duty, often under downright traumatic circumstances. I only wish more of us could manage to honor you by doing our civic duty to support better political leadership.


What You Should Think About Conscription

November 6, 2007

“. . . a draft or draft registration destroys the very values our society is committed to defending.”

–Ronald Reagan

The decline of the Roman Empire was a complex phenomenon involving many factors. Yet the case can be made that foremost among these factors was the decline of Rome’s citizen-soldier culture. From the days of the early monarchs until well after the time of Julius Caeser, physically fit Roman citizens were bound by duty to a term of military service, typically four years in length. In limited contexts, outsiders had been involved with the Legions. Yet so long as Rome thrived, so did reliance on the citizens of Rome to provide manpower to fight for the interests of the state.

In fact, it was traditional for Roman mothers to send their adolescent sons off to war with the directive, “come back with your shield or on it.*” This sort of universal conscription (keeping in mind that women were never eligible for Roman citizenship while foreigners in annexed territories as well as freed slaves were normally given a lesser form of citizenship) served a number of purposes. Citizens from different families and different cities might serve side by side, learning to view the state and life itself from fresh perspectives. More importantly, all the sons of Rome were put in peril by any military aggression. This dramatically changes the context of public debate about warfare.

As hindsight grants more and more clarity over time, it is fair to ask if a Pyrrhic victory was won by the peace movement protesting Viet Nam era policies. When all was said and done, America marginalized conscription in favor of an all-volunteer force. No more would reluctant or even unwilling citizens be compelled to train and fight, sometimes also losing life or limb, to provide manpower for the armed forces of the United States in time of war. In many circles ending the draft was considered a great advance in the march of peace and enlightenment.

Was it so? The events of this century crystallize one aspect of this issue. “They all signed up knowing this could happen,” is an argument that dramatically lowers the threshold of justification for military action. Perhaps even in time of conscription, America offered up loopholes to shelter reluctant sons of Senators from combat duty. Still, at least 99% of the nation felt pressures to closely scrutinize American war efforts. Those pressures are now much less intense and widespread.

The thing is, war itself has not changed nearly as much as the political context of it. In a jungle where draftees are getting shot to pieces, “support the troops” is not at all easily equated with “support a policy of open-ended military occupation.” In a desert where volunteers are getting shelled and ambushed, “support the troops” is more easily confused with “support the war policy.” In the absence of a draft, it becomes easier for national leaders to equate political hawkishness with national loyalty.

That equation is always bogus — there has yet to be a war waged with such perfection of justification, planning, and oversight as to eliminate all legitimate grounds for loyal criticism. Yet political discourse so often does not take place at a level where that understanding given due consideration. The blurriness of debate is made even worse by some confusion about the ambitions and experiences of actual soldiers in time of war. Eagerness to kill is never truly a good thing. In some battlefield contexts it can become a useful thing, but no sane combatant craves bloodshed for its own sake. An agenda that actively promotes death and destruction never serves the actual interests of soldiers. Yet this too is sometimes overlooked without the context provided by conscription.

The end result plays into a dangerous theme evident in all of history’s military superpowers — the glorification of violence. There is legitimate debate about removing Andrew Jackson from American currency because his deeds, both as a commander in the war of 1812 and later as a President orchestrating Native American genocide, were not at all heroic. A real hero, even in time of war, is defined by the assumption of personal risk for the purpose of protecting comrades and/or bystanders from harm. Jackson was more involved with putting others at risk than assuming it himself. His most significant acts and policies brought about deaths that were not at all necessary to accomplishing any defensible purpose. Yet he has stood tall in American history for such a long time, as less enlightened generations failed to distinguish between the real heroism of courageous self-sacrifice and the bloody grandstanding of killing merely for the sake of killing.

Could the war in Afghanistan have been put on a better course if a number of draftees had been called up to assist in combat operations since the fall of the Taliban there? Would the war in Iraq ever have occurred if the prospect of widespread conscription motivated more Americans to be attentive to pertinent facts during the rush into that debacle? Would pundits and media outlets profligate with outright lies leading up to the war still enjoy so much respect and attention if a portion of the fallen were reluctant draftees? Clearly being drafted is not a good thing for a majority of conscripts. Yet the lack of conscription seems to be an especially useful thing for irresponsible warmongers.

Thus we might also ask if a lack of conscription is an especially bad thing for our own nation. Rich with spoils from a vast empire, weakened by rampant corruption in the halls of power, and suffering from the protracted stagnation that often accompanies a sense of supremacy, Rome eventually abandoned the draft. Citizens still had a duty to support the army, but those with money were given the option to hire mercenaries as an alternative to personally fighting for their nation.

It would not be long after that policy change that the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed. Foreigners hired to fight the Romans’ wars soon became strong enough to fight on their own behalf. Romans increasingly detached from their citizen-soldier roots were losing both the will and the means to defend their own interests. The greatest power in the history of Western civilization, according to legend founded by the wolf-suckled twins Romulus and Remus, officially came to an end after a captive teen, Romulus Augustus, abdicated his position to the barbarian Odoacer.

It is hard to imagine Rome would have declined so precipitously if its citizens remained much more actively involved in military affairs. It is worrisome to imagine what awaits America as we continue to separate the interests of our ordinary citizens from the plight of our professional combatants. My medieval history professor grabbed attention artfully by beginning his first lecture with a warning that America was doomed. As it turns out, no great society has thrived for more than a few generations while relying chiefly on volunteers for military service. I hope he was mistaken, and I do believe modernity presents a different context than Europe at the end of the classical period. Yet I also believe it is imperative that modern life does not prevent us from considering the examples of unraveling superpowers, moving with startling swiftness from unchallenged dominance to the pages of history.

*Many seem to associate this line with the Spartans. I am in no position to categorically disprove that. However, I am troubled by the logistics of it. The standard Spartan shield was not large enough to be effective as a corpse-hauling implement. Roman shields were made large in order to facilitate a number of distinctive tactics like the testudo. A well-made Roman shield would have been large enough and strong enough be serve as a stretcher or sledge even while carrying the weight of an adult human.  Also, that language is recurrent in Roman literature.