The U.S. Military’s Ethos: Of Busy-work, Sweaty Suffering, White Wall Haircuts, Beribboned Uniforms, and Warrior Talk

W.J. Astore

Why does the U.S. military invest so much pride in working to the point of tedium, if not exhaustion?  A friend of mine, an Army major, worked at the Pentagon.  He worked hard during his normal shift, after which he did what sensible people do – he went home.  His co-workers, noses to the grindstone, would hassle him about leaving “early.”  He’d reply, I can leave on-time because I don’t waste hours at the coffee maker or in the gym.

A caffeinated emphasis on work and fitness, another friend suggested, may be a post-Vietnam War reaction to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “managerial culture” of the 1960s.  As he put it, “One easy way of showing one has the ‘right stuff’ [in the U.S. military] is to be an exercise nut, and the penumbras of that mind-set have really distorted the allocation of effort in our military.”

Two recent examples of work- and fitness-mania are Army Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.  The U.S. media extolled them as ascetic-warriors, yet both flamed out due to serious errors in judgment (Petraeus for an affair with his biographer, with whom he illegally shared highly classified information, and McChrystal for tolerating a climate that undermined his civilian chain of command).  Asceticism and sweaty fitness routines, after all, are no substitute for sound judgment and a disciplined mind.

Busy-work within the military is related to Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted to it.  In this case, with America’s wars on terror being open-ended, or “multi-generational” as the U.S. military puts it, the “work” on these wars will continue to expand to fill this time, with the added benefit of “validating” the extra money ($54 billion in 2017 alone) being shoveled to the Pentagon by President Trump.

Along with busy-work are the virtues of suffering, as related by a societal celebration of Navy SEALs and similar special forces (“100 men will test today/but only three win the Green Beret”).  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read articles and seen films featuring these “supermen” and their arduous training.  The meme of “sweet–and public–suffering” is related to the whole “warrior” ideal (more on this later) within the U.S. military.  There’s a self-righteous shininess here, a triumph of image over substance, or image as substance.  (Being physically tough is of course an asset in close quarters combat, but it’s no guarantor of strategic sense or even of common sense.)

In the past, some of America’s finest military leaders had no shame in appearing common, most famously the “shabby” Ulysses S. Grant during the U.S. Civil War.

Grant at Cold Harbor, 1864

Civil War officers – true citizen-soldiers, most of them – often had unruly hair and unkempt beards, but they sure as hell fought hard and got the job done.  Nowadays, as another reader put it, “there appears to be a whole lot of Army officers who think a white sidewall haircut proves you’re a great officer. It actually is a homage to the Prussian Army that shaved its soldiers’ heads to prevent lice.”

Speaking again of image, let’s take a close look at the beribboned uniforms of today’s military officers.  General Joseph Votel, presently U.S. Centcom commander, is only the most recent example of an excess of ribbons, badges, and other devices:

Contrast Votel’s image to that of General George C. Marshall, who defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II.

Marshall in 1946

How did Marshall manage such military feats with so few ribbons?  Nowadays, U.S. generals sport more bling than the Kardashians.

But let’s return to the notion of U.S. troops as “warriors” and “warfighters.”  I’ve written extensively on this subject.  I see today’s “warrior” conceit as a way of eliminating our democratic citizen-soldier ideal, making the U.S. military a thoroughly professional force, subservient to the government and divorced from the people.

However, there’s another aspect to this “warrior” mythology, a powerful psychological one: the duping of the “warriors” themselves, distracting them from a bitter reality they may be little more than cannon fodder for greed-war.*  The U.S. military today is awash with warrior creeds that to me are antithetical to the citizen-soldier ideal of America.

To sum up the U.S. military’s current ethos, then: We have a lot of guys who take great pride in constant busy-work and excessive physical exertion, sporting high and tight haircuts, their uniforms festooned with bewildering displays of ribbons and medals and badges, extolling a warrior code in the service of a government that tells them that multi-generational wars are unavoidable.

And so it shall prove, if these shadows remain unaltered.

*Thanks to Michael Murry for bringing my attention to how the semiotics of “warrior” are dramatically changed if we substitute “gladiator” for “warrior,” followed by less grandiose terms such as “those about to die,” i.e. as scapegoats to the king’s ambition, an insight he gleaned from reading Umberto Eco.

13 thoughts on “The U.S. Military’s Ethos: Of Busy-work, Sweaty Suffering, White Wall Haircuts, Beribboned Uniforms, and Warrior Talk

  1. Reading Umberto Eco — when he writes as a university professor on the subject of technical linguistics — can pose daunting difficulties, primarily due to the sheer number of new terms and concepts one has to first understand and then absorb. On the other hand, reading his novels, like The Name of the Rose (later made into a movie starring Sean Connery as a wandering detective/priest during the Inquisition of the Middle Ages) can give one a heightened appreciation of beautiful language as creative artistry. When I took up the reading of A Theory of Semiotics (Indiana University Press, 1976), I fully expected a textbook on linguistics but occasionally stumbled upon a truly beautiful and moving example of literature with which I could identify. For instance:

    “A better example of successful metonymy is offered by the interdependence established by the Romans between <> and <> or <> (Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant!) [i.e., “Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!”] In this latter case not only does the metonymy seem more “inventive” but it increases one’s awareness of the semantic entity <>.

    “Suppose now that one substitutes <> by <>, and <> by <<moriturus>> [i.e., “those about to die,” or “those seeking death”]. Not only are warriors seen in a less customary light but they are characterized by a peripheral marker that is shared by other sememes that might up to this point have been considered far removed from the one under consideration. For instance, it now becomes possible to associate a warrior metaphorically with a <> (as a <<moriturus>> by definition), so that an army of warriors may be defined as /the scapegoats of the King’s ambitions/. Insofar as <> has a marker of <> the way to a more complex network of substitutions is open; the warriors become /two thousand innocent swords/. And so on. At the extreme point of this substitutional shifting, the way in which warriors are usually viewed has enormously changed; the connotations of <>, <>, <>, and <> do not disappear, but merge with antonymous connotations such as <>, <>, <>, and <>.” [emphasis added]

    In my nearly six years of personal enlisted military service, I displayed no “fierceness.” did nothing “courageous,” took little “pride” in what I did, and experienced nothing even remotely approximating “victory.” On the other hand, I most certainly felt moments of “fear,” periods of “sorrow,” a lifetime of “shame,” and the acceptance of an utter “defeat.”

    Now, when one considers that 22 enlisted military veterans commit suicide each and every day in the United States — but that one never hears of a general officer doing anything like that — I have a pretty good idea of what the word “warrior” means to those who have to fight for nothing and what it means to those who command others to do their fighting for them.

    Scapegoat of the King’s ambition
    Hostage to the Prince’s crime
    Sent upon a madman’s errand
    Soldier of another time

    Now he comes home like the others
    Breathless lips and eyes shut fast
    Lain to sleep beside his brothers
    Soldier’s soldier to the last

    My deepest and most sincere appreciation to Umberto Eco, not just for what he taught me about linguistics, but for what he inspired me to write for myself.

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    1. Ouch! I have to apologize for the formatting. In Umberto Eco’s text, a pair of double-angle-brackets surround key terms, but this website interprets these as HTML codes and eats the inner bracket and term. I’ll have to substitute something else for them and repost the comment. How about “{” for “<>”?

      “A better example of successful metonymy is offered by the interdependence established by the Romans between {gladiator} and {ready to die} or {death seekers} (Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant!) [i.e., “Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!”] In this latter case not only does the metonymy seem more “inventive” but it increases one’s awareness of the semantic entity {gladiator}.

      “Suppose now that one substitutes {warrior} by {gladiator}, and {gladiators} by {moriturus} [i.e., “those about to die,” or “those seeking death”]. Not only are warriors seen in a less customary light but they are characterized by a peripheral marker that is shared by other sememes that might up to this point have been considered far removed from the one under consideration. For instance, it now becomes possible to associate a warrior metaphorically with a {scapegoat} (as a {moriturus} by definition), so that an army of warriors may be defined as /the scapegoats of the King’s ambitions/. Insofar as {scapegoat} has a marker of {innocence} the way to a more complex network of substitutions is open; the warriors become /two thousand innocent swords/. And so on. At the extreme point of this substitutional shifting the way in which warriors are usually viewed has enormously changed; the connotations of {fierceness}, {courage}, {pride}, and {victory} do not disappear, but merge with antonymous connotations such as {fear}, {sorrow}, {shame}, and {defeat}.”>

      Let’s see how this works…

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  2. I left a comment which required me to login with my WP account then appeared to disappear my comment. So, at risk of duplicating my post I will copy the text in to this box which shows me already logged in. My apologies if this is a duplication, if so please just delete the duplicate.
    Thanks,
    Mike

    1 —
    Yes. I always thought they looked as though something in addition to their hair was cropped. I was a geodetic computer/surveyor (cross trained as) in the Air Force (68-72). We were the only squadron of our type working out of Cheyenne Wyoming, first as the 1381st and then the 1st Geodetic Survey Squadron when MATS (Military Air Transport Command) changed to MAC (Military Airlift Command). Most of our jobs were TDY (temporary duty) in teams of 2 to 6 or 7 and living in civilian areas, often working in civvies (unless we got stuck working on military bases or missile sites). As a result we often let our hair grow to non-reg lengths. I was on a job for months working out of London before some captain figured out we were regular military and made us get our hair cut.
    However, to get back to the point, we worked darn hard, around the clock as needed (from daylight work to direct observations on stars in the nights) and rested, read, played, toured the rest of the time. There was no room to fudge anything. Either our numbers had to work out or they didn’t. We took a lot of pride in the quality of our work. If we weren’t good we wouldn’t keep getting the great TDYs. We also had good per diem most places and you could see that in the muscle cars outside our baracks and stereos inside the baracks. It was complex, technical, exacting work but we did it well. And we also took a certain amount of pride in getting away with scrubbiness from time to time. :: – ))
    2 —
    The other part is what I call the “War Show.” This is where the “leaders” of two countries have a tiff with each other and decide to fight. Not each other, of course. Instead they each command those in their command to fight those in the other’s command. Never mind that left to their own devices and brought together normally these “troops” would socialize and form friendships, just as any normal people with equivalent social ranking always do. (think of the Christmas Truce of 1914) Now they will kill each other for no reason they understand other than they have been placed in locations and ordered to fight. All this time the “leaders” each script, direct and enjoy their own war play, immune from having to be actors in their own show.
    I’m remembering a minister I knew a long time ago who said it was easy being a minister. It wasn’t so much what he said as long as he remembered to give his parish their weekly show. With that in mind I will risk another pun and call the big show WarShip.

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  3. first thoughts upon reading your opinion piece. end of draft brought on massive advertising campaigns to attract enlistees…ADS depicting war gaming type stuff or joining the force get free college…all units that typically were rear support and guard adopted the warrior ethos with patches etc. remember the Army beret struggle…and then media allows such things as The Warrior Song

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    1. Thanks. Over 14 million views. All that talk of killing machines and rivers of blood — and of course fear. Totally contrary to the citizen-soldier ideal of the “Greatest Generation” of World War II.

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      1. One of our regular tasks was to confirm or re-establish the azimuths from the A-point on the missile site out to two pylons roughly 300 meters out from the missile silo. This had to be done annually at least for each site. Essentially we were setting up mathematical gun sites to be used in targeting.
        After we did our stuff the targeting teams would go from our measurements into the missile itself to target the thing. (At least until 1972 when the first geosensors were put into action. I certified the first set of the hatbox-sized gyros which determined rotational north by sensing the rotation of the earth.)

        Originally the targeting teams were called Targeting and Analysis. Of course we called them T&A every time we saw them. Someone, I have no idea who, didn’t like that and decided to give them nifty blue dickies and bloused pants to parade around in on site along with a new name, Combat Targeting Teams. Of course, those of us who remembered, insisted on calling them T&A. (smile at the memory)

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    1. In 1969-1970, At the Defense Language Institute (West Coast Branch) hosted by at the U.S. Army Presidio of Monterey, we students from the combined military services and government departments got to eat “free” food prepared by Army cooks. No one liked it very much and we sailors who could scrape up a few bucks every now and then would pile into someone’s car, drive across town to the Naval Post Graduate School, and pay to eat real Navy food. Most of the time, though, we enlilsed military types didn’t have much money and so we ate whatever the Army saw fit to provide. When we complained, some of our Army friends explained things to us. You see, many of the kitchen staff had “KP” or “Kitchen Police” duty, which in the Army meant busy-work for having committed some petty infraction. “How good would you expect the food to be” they would ask us, “when cooking it is a form of punishment?”

      On the side of the chow hall, the Army had placed a plaque which read: “Chesty Puller ate a meal here.” Unimpressed, someone had crossed out the word “meal” and written “mule” above it.

      Then, we had the standard joke about our upcoming deployments to the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam. It went something like this:

      Question: “If President Nixon is withdrawing the troops from Vietnam, then how come I’ve got orders to Vietnam next year?”

      Answer: “You fool. How can Nixon withdraw you from Vietnam unless he sends you there first?”

      That sort of thing. I especially remember standing in line one day at the Army chow hall next to this Asian-American Marine corporal in his best Marine Corps Birthday uniform. He turned his eyes upwards towards the implacable heavens and wailed: “Happy Birthday Crotch! What do I have to do to celebrate? Clean the latrine twice?”

      That sort of thing. Hard to get through year after year of military stupidity and wasted life without at least some sense of irony.

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      1. Anyone who’s been in the military recognizes the busy-work, the make-work, the pettiness, the vindictiveness, and other forms of behavior that Paul Fussell memorably described as “chickenshit.” I’ve heard high-ranking officers go on rants about haircuts; another time, we all had to remove personal items from our cubicles because a general was coming through (they didn’t want to take a chance the general might see a calendar or poster he didn’t like).

        Then you have the apple-polishers, the ones who are eager to get promoted, the “Yes, sir!” types. Almost as bad are the grumblers, the ones who like to add misery to misery. And, mostly in basic training, all the needless marching around, punishments, and so on. A memorable “punishment” was edging lawns with shovels. Yes, even us officer-candidates had to do chicken-shit. I recall as well scrounging for wax and buffers so that the floors would should shine and our trainers would be happy.

        Much of it is a game; some of it is sadistic or exploitative or just plain dumb; but rarely is this side of the military presented in the media. From watching movies and TV, you’d think military service is sharp uniforms and excitement and noble and heroic actions against a heartless enemy with flags flying patriotically in the background.

        A sardonic sense of humor, a sense of irony, a little sarcasm and a touch of cynicism, go a long way toward military life tolerable. That, and hopefully a good squad of like-minded friends.

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  4. Greetings,

    I was a conscript in the Bundeswehr, and have some family members in the security/armed forces of the Russian federation.
    Some of the points raised sound somewhat familiar, others not so much. From my Bundeswehr perspective, it seems that things such as that “warrior” meme stuff have not caught up that well in Krautland, but I perceive some anecdotes which move into this direction (especially after the draft got abolished). My guess is that we Krauts are on the same path, but we are currently were the US armed forces were 1,5 decades or so ago.

    Warning Second hand rephrasing:
    In the Russian forces, things are quite different. Running around as bejewelled mincers is one thing, which btw. has a pretty long history here (Zhukov carried a lot of Bling) with some twists (basically, if you have something that is a really big award, Hero of the Soviet Union, Hero of the Russian federation whatever, you do not tend to wield it together with awards which basically everyone gets for not being a dead body) , but the whole gym thing is a lot less pronounced. Russian special forces in particular do not tend to hulk out in an exaggerated fashion, and sports performance does not have (outside of some “sport soldiers” who represent Russia at things like Biathlon internationally) much of an impact on your assessment, as long as you are not overweight or have other indicators implying actual physical unfitness.
    “lean” is also preferred because it make blending in with civilians easier.

    Working late hours to show how committed one is is a thing though, and work efficiency in Russia across all fields is considerably below the German status at least. Neither Germany nor Russia have the thing called “up our out”. When I translated this concept to some of my military related Russian relations, they were like “If the KGB did some clever thing to make the Americans adopt such a stupid system, I am naming my next son Felix (reference to Felix Dzershinsky, father of the Cheka, Russian military generally does not like the KGB/MVD/NKVD/FSB/CHEKA or whatever very much so it is pretty idiosyncratic to make that kind of statement).”

    The peculiarities of Russias payment system in her armed forces (basically, you get a small pay for what your rank is, then you get a payment for your position, then you get payment for particular tasks you did, such as firing artillery, handling classified documents etc. depending on how often you did them. Some of this is then multiplied with a region dependent multiplier. This modifier can lead to a Major in Moscow making more money then a General in Vladivostok. All of this has to be meticulously documented.) to lend themselves to a considerable degree of paperwork.
    A joke is this:
    Question “When is the most dangerous time for American to invade us? Reply: “Between 22 and 25 of any month because that is when we are doing our salary related paperwork.” Second question:”But would such a despicable act not inspire us to vengefully smite them in a new “sacred war”?” Second reply:”Not if there is a realistic chance that we arent getting paid for the smiting, because we didnt hand in our paperwork in time.”

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