Military Dissent and the Need to Save Democracy from Perpetual War

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A true hero because he spoke up

W.J. Astore

My latest article at TomDispatch.com focuses on the need for military dissent in an age of creeping militarism and perpetual war.  In my article, I identify some of the key reasons why such dissent is tightly constrained and often severely limited.  This is especially problematic for at least two reasons.  The first is that Americans say they trust the military more than any other societal institution.  If the military censors itself, it misses an invaluable opportunity to educate an attentive public about the disastrous path of America’s wars.

The second reason is that a democracy’s health depends on dissent.  A country in which dissent is suppressed, a country that finds itself engaged in perpetual war, is a country that cannot sustain democratic institutions.  We’re already witnessing the withering away of democracy in America.  That it’s happening in slow motion doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.

A Marine Corps sergeant and Vietnam War veteran wrote to me in “salty” language that “his damn war [was] fucked up,” but that while he was still in uniform he “spoke little [against the war] and only then about how it was being run.”  We need more honesty from today’s veterans about how America’s damn wars are fucked up.  Maybe then we’ll finally get off our duffs and work to put a stop to them.

Here are a few excerpts from my article; I invite you to read all of it at TomDispatch.com.

The Pentagon has, in a very real sense, become America’s national cathedral.  If we’re going to continue to worship at it, we should at least ask for some minimal level of honesty from its priests.  In militarized America, the question of the moment is how to encourage such honesty.

Call it patriotic dissent.  By “dissent” I mean honest talk from those who should know best about the hazards and horrors of perpetual war, about how poorly those conflicts have gone and are going.  We desperately need to encourage informed critics and skeptics within the military and the [Military-Industrial] Complex to speak their minds in a way that moves the national needle away from incessant bombing and perpetual war.

Yet to do so, we must first understand the obstacles involved.  It’s obvious, for example, that a government which has launched a war against whistleblowers, wielding the World War I-era Espionage Act against them and locking away Chelsea Manning for a veritable lifetime in a maximum security prison, isn’t likely to suddenly encourage more critical thinking and public expression inside the national security state. But much else stands in the way of the rest of us hearing a little critical speech from the “fourth branch” of government …

Leaving military insularity, unit loyalty, and the pressure of combat aside, however, here are seven other factors I’ve witnessed, which combine to inhibit dissent within military circles.

1. Careerism and ambition: The U.S. military no longer has potentially recalcitrant draftees — it has “volunteers.”  Yesteryear’s draftees were sometimes skeptics; many just wanted to endure their years in the military and get out.  Today’s volunteers are usually believers; most want to excel.  Getting a reputation for critical comments or other forms of outspokenness generally means not being rewarded with fast promotions and plum assignments.  Career-oriented troops quickly learn that it’s better to fail upwards quietly than to impale yourself on your sword while expressing honest opinions.  If you don’t believe me, ask all those overly decorated generals of our failed wars you see on TV.

2. Future careerism and ambition: What to do when you leave the military?  Civilian job options are often quite limited. Many troops realize that they will be able to double or triple their pay, however, if they go to work for a defense contractor, serving as a military consultant or adviser overseas.  Why endanger lucrative prospects (or even your security clearance, which could be worth tens of thousands of dollars to you and firms looking to hire you) by earning a reputation for being “difficult”?

3. Lack of diversity: The U.S. military is not blue and red and purple America writ small; it’s a selective sampling of the country that has already winnowed out most of the doubters and rebels.  This is, of course, by design.  After Vietnam, the high command was determined never to have such a wave of dissent within the ranks again and in this (unlike so much else) they succeeded.  Think about it: between “warriors” and citizen-soldiers, who is more likely to be tractable and remain silent?

4. A belief that you can effect change by working quietly from within the system: Call it the Harold K. Johnson effect.  Johnson was an Army general during the Vietnam War who considered resigning in protest over what he saw as a lost cause.  He decided against it, wagering that he could better effect change while still wearing four stars, a decision he later came deeply to regret.  The truth is that the system has time-tested ways of neutralizing internal dissent, burying it, or channeling it and so rendering it harmless.

5. The constant valorization of the military: Ever since 9/11, the gushing pro-military rhetoric of presidents and other politicians has undoubtedly served to quiet honest doubts within the military.  If the president and Congress think you’re the best military ever, a force for human liberation, America’s greatest national treasure, who are you to disagree, Private Schmuckatelli?

America used to think differently.  Our founders considered a standing army to be a pernicious threat to democracy.  Until World War II, they generally preferred isolationism to imperialism, though of course many were eager to take land from Native Americans and Mexicans while double-crossing Cubans, Filipinos, and other peoples when it came to their independence.  If you doubt that, just read War is a Racket by Smedley Butler, a Marine general in the early decades of the last century and two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor. In the present context, think of it this way: democracies should see a standing military as a necessary evil, and military spending as a regressive tax on civilization — as President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously did when he compared such spending to humanity being crucified on a cross of iron.

Chanting constant hosannas to the troops and telling them they’re the greatest ever — remember the outcry against Muhammad Ali when, with significantly more cause, he boasted that he was the greatest? — may make our military feel good, but it won’t help them see their flaws, nor us as a nation see ours.

6. Loss of the respect of peers: Dissent is lonely.  It’s been more than a decade since my retirement and I still hesitate to write articles like this.  (It’s never fun getting hate mail from people who think you’re un-American for daring to criticize any aspect of the military.)  Small wonder that critics choose to keep their own counsel while they’re in the service.

7.  Even when you leave the military, you never truly leave: I haven’t been on a military base in years.  I haven’t donned a uniform since my retirement ceremony in 2005.  Yet occasionally someone will call me “colonel.”  It’s always a reminder that I’m still “in.” I may have left the military behind, but it never left me behind.  I can still snap to attention, render a proper salute, recite my officer’s oath from memory.

In short, I’m not a former but a retired officer.  My uniform may be gathering dust in the basement, but I haven’t forgotten how it made me feel when I wore it.  I don’t think any of us who have served ever do.  That strong sense of belonging, that emotional bond, makes you think twice before speaking out.  Or at least that’s been my experience.  Even as I call for more honesty within our military, more bracing dissent, I have to admit that I still feel a residual sense of hesitation.  Make of that what you will.

Bonus Reason: Troops are sometimes reluctant to speak out because they doubt Americans will listen, or if they do, empathize and understand.  It’s one thing to vent your frustrations in private among friends on your military base or at the local VFW hall among other veterans.  It’s quite another to talk to outsiders.  War’s sacrifices and horrors are especially difficult to convey and often traumatic to relive.  Nevertheless, as a country, we need to find ways to encourage veterans to speak out and we also need to teach ourselves how to listen — truly listen — no matter the harshness of what they describe or how disturbed what they actually have to say may make us feel …

And I conclude my article in this way:

Some will doubtless claim that encouraging patriotic dissent within the military can only weaken its combat effectiveness, endangering our national security.  But when, I wonder, did it become wise for a democracy to emulate Sparta?  And when is it ever possible to be perfectly secure?

One thought on “Military Dissent and the Need to Save Democracy from Perpetual War

  1. When it comes to applying specific cuts to defense expenditure, the military squeals loudly in protest. The most wasteful arm of government won’t dismount from its position willingly, it will have to be unhorsed.

    Like

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