What Does a Soldier’s Rant Tell Us About the Choices We’ve Made?
Friday, 06 August 2010 06:11
Written by Sam Hurst
Eric Zimmer has opened a proverbial can of worms (see Page One article). Just who is the Rapid City soldier that unleashed a rant of profanity and bigotry against his fellow citizens on Facebook a few weeks ago? I don't mean, "What's his name?" I mean, "Who is he!?" Is he a rogue with a bent sense of his own importance? That is certainly the most comforting conclusion...and the easiest. Dismiss him as a wingnut. One influential politician I spoke with this week was quick to assure me: "He's not a reflection of the Army."
Well...not so fast.
What if he's just a regular, well-adjusted soldier? What would it mean if this spontaneous Facebook rant is an honest reflection of the All Volunteer Army and the culture that has grown around it-a poisonous partnership of right-wing Christian crusaders, hyper-patriots, uneducated, anti-Arab bigots, and mercenaries who combine a lust for profiteering with a conviction that there isn't a problem that can't be solved with a gun? You know...the 100,000 highly trained, highly militarized, off the radar, "private contractors".
Several old soldiers, veterans from World War Two and Vietnam, have told me in no uncertain terms that soldiers should not be judged by their profanity. Language has always been "salty", one eighty-eight year old vet told me. Fair enough. It is stupid for a soldier to leave a trail of such bad judgment on a social networking site, and God save him if his commanding officer discovers his tirade, but for the sake of argument let's cut the guy some slack for his profanity. What are we left with?
This is a soldier who believes that by virtue of his service he has attained a separate status from his fellow citizens, a status which gives him the right to speak and judge others while demanding that others either shut up or leave the country. And, he wraps this naïve advocacy of military exceptionalism in patriotic fist pounding.
George Washington, leader of the Society of Cincinnatus, the general who angrily rejected the encouragement of his fellow officers to declare himself King, would gag on this young soldier's pretense of authority.
How can I say this as simply as possible? Thank you for your service. Citizenship is sovereign.
If you want to celebrate the virtues of a life of sacrifice, honor teachers, honor your parents, honor the Constitution, and watch your mouth when you speak about the Commander in Chief. Remember, you are a soldier not a punk rocker. (Article Two, Section 2: "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States and of the militia of the several States...")
All of this is easy. The hard part is coming to terms with the culture of the All Volunteer Army. It has been a dreadful mistake--a mistake for American foreign policy (our outreach to other nations) and a mistake for democracy. The All Volunteer Army is the last great failure of the Vietnam War, and the responsibility falls squarely on American liberals. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we are paying the price.
When President Kennedy first authorized that specially trained Army Rangers could wear the distinctive Green Beret, he imagined a brotherhood (this was before anyone imagined a sisterhood) of soldier-intellectuals, men whose military training would be combined with advanced degrees in engineering, epidemiology, or cultural anthropology, and fluency in three or four languages.
These were going to be soldiers who could de-fuse a terrorist bomb, evacuate women and children from a battlefield under fire, whip the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, and then sit cross-legged with village elders and talk about how to dig a well or build a health clinic for the village, all the while smoking local tobacco and debating the meaning of democracy in a local dialect.
They were supposed to be soldiers hand-crafted to the demands of unconventional war, where the hearts and minds of small nation populations held the balance in a global war of ideology. These were soldiers suited to be the "policemen of the world", the front line of liberation from tyranny. The Latin motto of the Green Berets was "From Oppression We Will Liberate Them". It is important to remember that John Kennedy and Sargent Shriver did not imagine the Peace Corps as a Kum-Ba-Yah refuge for Ivy League liberals, but as the strategic alter ego comrades of the Rangers. It is not at all clear that such statesmen-warriors ever existed.
What we got instead was John Wayne and a country western battle hymn. We got Rambo and GI Jane. Daniel Ellsberg was probably the closest the nation ever came to the counter-insurgency warrior Kennedy imagined, and we prosecuted him for releasing the Pentagon Papers.
A failure of distinction is critical here. The idea of highly trained special forces was not to create a exclusive military culture, but to bring the vast creative power of the nation into a citizen army.
My father is a good example of how World War Two shaped the thinking of President Kennedy. My father was an architect educated at Georgia Tech. He knew how to read landscapes and maps and the shapes of buildings against elevation. So they made him a photo recon intelligence officer. He brought his expertise into the Navy, and when the war was over, he pursued his career as an architect. My father accepted the existence of a well-trained officer corps and general staff, but he loathed the idea of a permanent standing army made up of men and women who were soldiers first and citizens second. In this regard, he echoed a loathing that goes directly back to the Founding Fathers' hatred of the professional British Army and its Hessian mercenaries.
What happened in Vietnam was not just that the citizen army refused to fight for imperial war policies (although it did), or even that the politicians in Washington tragically misunderstood the history and politics of the region (although they did). What happened is that the military itself split in two. Rather than understanding the resistance to the draft and the collapse of the army's willingness to fight as a citizen rebellion against an immoral, unjust, and unwinnable war, the general staff came to the conclusion that citizens are an unreliable foundation for a modern army.
Liberals, pumped up on their righteous outrage against the Vietnam War, were only to willing to agree that citizens should not be drafted against their will into an army they didn't support. This is the ultimate contradiction of liberalism. A democracy cannot survive if it is "someone else's" responsibility to defend the nation. Conservatives, on the other hand, were only too willing to seize the uniformed services as their own private preserve.
The lines are not precise. President Obama regularly receives a standing ovation at military bases from young minority soldiers who are in the military because it is a pathway to economic security and education. Much of the officer corps reflects the highest values of honor and service. But both of those trends are at the margins. At the core is a deeply entrenched conservative institution separated from the American people. Soldiers and their extended families live in one high anxiety culture while civilians go about their business indifferent to the war on a day-to-day basis. This is not healthy for a democracy. As the percentage of the population that serves continues to decline, the problems will become more extreme.
As might be expected, one of the core principles of the All Volunteer Army is that better educated, more motivated, young people will enter the armed forces. In addition, the officer corps will be better trained, more sophisticated, and have more lofty values because they choose to be there. But that has not turned out to be the case. Much attention is given to the educational triumphs of the general staff. McChrystal, Odierno, and Petraeus all have advanced educational degrees and fellowships from the nation's top universities. But after the adrenaline rush of 9/11, with extended tours, it has become harder and harder to recruit enlisted soldiers at the local Mall, and a disproportionate number of mid-level officers are retiring early and opting out of careers.
This dynamic appears at the exact moment when the Ivy League Generals are promoting a very complicated strategy of community-based counter-insurgency with a strong civilian component, and ground level tactics that require soldiers to hold their fire and keep calm rather than kick in the door and blast away.
What a contradiction...the young man on Facebook is the well-trained tip of a counter-insurgency strategy that requires soldiers to move through the night like cultural and sociological ninjas-sensitive to culture, respectful of the natives around them, and noble reflections of America's highest aspirations. One of the "photo galleries" on this young man's Facebook page is a collection from Afghanistan entitled "Afghanistan: Ass Hole of the World"."
How can we possibly win this war?
This is the culture of the playground bully who threatens a classmate and intensifies the aggressive bravado as he receives support and encouragement from those who line up behind him to join in the abuse. It is common to all Internet forums which accept comments.
Before the Internet such exchanges would be moderated
through the factors that govern speech and expression. With the advent of the Internet and the availability of anonymity, a culture of belligerence has been revealed and propagated. Many news organizations have decided to close down their discussion boards because such exchanges dominated them, and many bloggers have curtailed or quit their posting because they realize that the conversations generated are not informing or enlightening, but down-right degrading.
As am old soldier who served during the Cold War and whose duty is was to represent our country's better angels to the foreign nations that hosted us, I note that we had people in our units who had similar habits of mind and decorum. They were generally "reassigned" to duties that kept them from the public view and were held in reserve for those occasions when their belligerence could be useful. While enlisted men are not subject to the punishment provided officers who insult and disrespect their civilian command, they were subject to the punishments and discipline of insubordinate conduct.
You are right, Sam. These wars cannot be won, and they undermine internally the very freedoms and values that they claim to defend and promote. The rhetoric of violence is the precursor of war.