Democracies should be slow to start wars and quick to end them. James Madison taught us that. Why is America today the very opposite of this?
I thought of this as I read Danny Sjursen’s fine article at TomDispatch.com. Sjursen, a retired Army major, is a strong critic of America’s forever wars. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost soldiers under his command. He knows the bitter cost of war and expresses it well in his article, which I encourage you to read. Here’s an excerpt:
Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students [West Point cadets] were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer.
Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in… hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to “victory” of any sort, no matter how defined.
Repetition. Endless repetition. That is the theme of America’s wars today.
Remember the movie “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray? Murray’s character repeats the same day, over and over again. He’s stuck in an infinite loop from which he can’t escape. Much like America’s wars today, with one exception: Murray’s character actually learns some humility from the repetition. He shows a capacity for growth and change. And that’s how he escapes his loop. He changes. He grows. The U.S. military’s leadership? Not so much.
But I don’t just blame the senior leaders of the U.S. military. They’re not that dumb. It’s the system of greed-war they and we inhabit. Why change endless war when certain powerful forces are endlessly profiting from it? War, after all, is a racket, as General Smedley Butler knew. It’s a racket that’s contrary to democracy; one that buttresses authoritarianism and even kleptocracy, since you can justify all kinds of theft in the cause of “keeping us safe” and “supporting our troops.”
Danny Sjursen, a true citizen-soldier, remembers that war is supposed to be waged in accordance with the Constitution and only to protect our country against enemies. But being a citizen-soldier has gone out of style in today’s military. Everyone is supposed to identify as a warrior/warfighter, which has the added benefit of suppressing thought about why we fight.
Eager to fight, slow to think, might be the new motto of America’s military. Such a motto, consistent with forever war, is inconsistent with democracy.
Ten years ago, I gave a talk on the ideal of citizen-soldiers and how and why America had drifted from that ideal. As war looms on the horizon yet again, this time with Iran, we’d be well advised to ask critical questions about our military, such as why we idolize it, how it no longer reflects our country demographically, its reliance on for-profit mercenaries, and the generally mediocre record of its senior leaders.
My talk consisted of notes that I hope are clear enough, but if they aren’t, please ask me to elaborate and I will in the comments section. Thanks.
Today  I want to discuss the ideal of the citizen-soldier and how I believe we have drifted from that ideal.
The Ideal: Dick Winters in Band of Brothers; E.B. Sledge in With the Old Breed; Jimmy Stewart. Until recent times, the American military was justly proud of being a force of citizen-soldiers. It didn’t matter whether you were talking about those famed Revolutionary War Minutemen, courageous Civil War volunteers, or the “Greatest Generation” conscripts of World War II.
Americans have a long tradition of being distrustful of the very idea of a large, permanent army, as well as of giving potentially disruptive authority to generals.
How have we drifted from that ideal? In six ways, I think:
Burden-sharing and lack of class equity
Historian David M. Kennedy in October 2005: “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”
Are we a true citizen-military if we call on only a portion of our citizens to make sacrifices?
All-Volunteer Military, or All-Recruited Military? Our military targets the working classes, the rural poor, young men (mostly men) who are out of work, or high school dropouts, for enlistments. (Officer corps is recruited somewhat differently.)
With few exceptions, societal elites not targeted by recruiters.
Anecdote: NYT article by Kenneth Harbaugh on exclusion of ROTC from Ivy-League college campuses
“At Yale, which has supplied more than its share of senators and presidents, almost none of my former classmates or students ever noticed the absence of uniforms on campus. In a nation at war, this is a disgrace. But it also shows how dangerously out of touch the elites who shape our national policy have become with the men and women they send to war.
Toward the end of the semester, I took my class to West Point. None of my students had ever seen a military base, and only one had a friend his age in uniform.”
“Support Our Troops” – But who are our troops? Why are they not drawn from across our class/demographic spectrum?
Estrangement of Progressives and Growing Conservatism/Evangelicalism of the Military
If the operating equation is military = bad, are we not effectively excusing ourselves or our children from any obligation to serve — even any obligation simply to engage with the military? Indeed, are we even patting ourselves on the back for the wisdom of our non-choice and our non-participation? Rarely has a failure to sacrifice or even to engage come at a more self-ennobling price — or a more self-destructive one for progressive agendas.
Example: Evangelicalism at the Air Force Academy versus separation of church and state.
Is our professional military a society within our larger society?
Many “troops” are no longer U.S. military: They’re private contractors. Instead of citizen-soldiers, they’re (in some cases) non-citizen mercenaries and non-citizen contractors.
Blackwater (Xe), Triple Canopy, Dyncorp, KBR: there are more contractor personnel in Iraq than U.S. military, and many contractors are providing security and doing tasks that our military used to do, like KP, for a lot more money.
Profit incentive: privatizing military is like privatizing prisons. You create a profit motive for extending military commitments, and perhaps wars as well.
In other words, citizen-soldiers like Sledge and Winters want to come home. Private mercenaries/contractors want to stay, as long as they’re making good money.
Cult of the warrior: Reference to American troops as “warfighters.” This is contrary to our American tradition of “Minutemen.” It’s a disturbing change in terminology.
I first noticed the term “warfighter” in 2002. Like many a field-grade staff officer, I spent a lot of time crafting PowerPoint briefings, trying to sell senior officers and the Pentagon on my particular unit’s importance to the President’s new Global War on Terrorism. The more briefings I saw, the more often I came across references to “serving the warfighter.” It was, I suppose, an obvious selling point, once we were at war in Afghanistan and gearing up for “regime-change” in Iraq. And I was probably typical in that I, too, grabbed the term for my briefings. After all, who wants to be left behind when it comes to supporting the troops “at the pointy end of the spear” (to borrow another military trope)?
But I wasn’t comfortable with the term then, and today it tastes bitter in my mouth.
We must not be “warriors” – we must be citizen-soldiers. And note how the word “citizen” comes first.
Aside: Warriors may commit more atrocities precisely because they see themselves as different from, and superior to, civilians.
Deference of civilians to military experts, instead of vice-versa. Why I wrote my first piece for TomDispatch. Idea that President George W. Bush couldn’t make the final decision on the Surge in Iraq until we heard from General David Petraeus.
In a country founded on civilian control of the military, it’s disturbing indeed that, as a New York Times/CBS poll indicated recently (2007), Americans trust their generals three times as much as Congress and 13 times as much as the President.
Also, abdication of responsibility by U.S. Congress. Our country is founded on civilian control of the military. But Congress afraid of being charged with hurting or abandoning our troops.
Georges Clemenceau: “War is too important to be left to generals.” Why? “Can-do” spirit to our military, no matter how dumb the war. And militaries seek military solutions.
So, “supporting our troops” must not mean putting blind faith in our military:
In “A Failure in Generalship,” which appeared in Armed Forces Journal in May 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling argues that, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, our generals “refused to prepare the Army to fight unconventional wars” and thereafter failed to “provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.” Put bluntly, he accuses them of dereliction of duty. Bewailing a lack of accountability for such failures in the military itself, Yingling memorably concludes that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
Oath of Office: Supporting the Constitution of the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Oath of allegiance is to the Constitution and to the ideas and ideals we cherish as Americans. But how are the “long wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan advancing these ideals? Are they consistent with our defense and our ideas/ideals of citizenship?
Breaking News: President Obama just decided to send another 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, today in the NYT, U.S. generals are already predicting that 50K+ U.S. troops may need to stay in Afghanistan for the next five years. In other words, this is not a temporary surge. [How true! Ten years later, we’re still in Afghanistan with no end in sight.]
So, how do we reverse these trends and reassert our ideal of a citizen-military?
Not with a draft, but perhaps with National Service (AmeriCorps, Green Corps, Peace Corps, Military).
Renewed commitment by Progressives to engage with the military. To understand the military, its rank structure, its ethos.
Reduce/eliminate dependence on mercenaries/private contractors, even if it costs us more.
Eliminate the “cult of the warrior.” Replace warfighter rhetoric with citizen-soldier ideal.
Deference to military experts for tactical/battlefield advice is sensible, but ultimately our military is commanded by the president and wars are authorized by the Congress, i.e. our elected representatives
Oath of office: Every time we deploy troops, we must ask: How is this advancing our national ideals as embodied in our Constitution? How are we defending ourselves?
Permit me to quote a passage from James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution. He noted in 1795 that:
“Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few… [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
And Madison’s idea of continual warfare = our military’s “Long War” = Forever War? What is our exit strategy? Do we even have one?
News that the Army is moving to a new, retro, uniform modeled on World War II-era designs got my military friends buzzing. Not so much about the “new” (old) uniform, but all the badges, ribbons, tabs, and related baubles and doodads that adorn U.S. military uniforms today, a topic I’ve written about before at TomDispatch.com and here at BV.
First, the new uniform. World War II was the last “great” war America truly won, so it’s hardly surprising the Army is reaching back to the era of the “greatest generation” and the “band of brothers.” Why not tap nostalgia for that “good” war, when Americans banded together against the Nazis and the Japanese? It’s also consistent with Trump’s message about “Making America Great Again”; we can even substitute “the Army” for “America” and keep MAGA.
For Trump, this mythical “great” America seems to center on the 1950s, whereas for the Army it’s WWII and the 1940s. Still, these MAGA uniforms and hats seem to say the Army and America are currently not great, and that the path to greatness is a retrograde one, a return to the past. (That return apparently does not include a revival of the draft and America’s citizen-soldier tradition.)
But it was an image of Dwight D. Eisenhower that got my military friends buzzing. Ike led the invasion of D-Day and was the architect of victory in Europe as supreme allied commander, yet you’d never know it from his simple, almost unadorned, uniform. Consider the image below of Ike that accompanied the story in the New York Times:
As one of my military correspondents, a retired command sergeant major who fought in the infantry in Vietnam, wrote to me:
[Ike was] A man from a cow town in Kansas, Abilene, who was a lower rung grad at West Point and came back from WW I as a Major. Twenty years later as a LTC enters WW II and comes back a Five Star General, one of only about five ever made and he has two, count them, two tiny rows of ribbons, no hero badges, not even a bolo badge to show what a great marksman he is, no para wings, no ranger tab, no CIB/EIB and FIVE, COUNT THEM, FIVE STARS on his shoulders. He also ran for, won, and was a pretty damned good [Republican president] for eight years. The Generals we have had since, starting with Westy [William Westmoreland] were all losers although they all had badges, ribbons, medals, patches all over their sorry asses BUT no VK medals, no VVN medals, no Victory Medals from any damned place I can think of. Well, maybe Grenada or Panama, or a bar fight in Columbus, GA. Home of Ft Benning… Something to think about, eh?
All those “bells and whistles” on military uniforms today “are like Vanity License Plates for one’s car,” this same command sergeant major noted. Speaking of vanity, a retired colonel told me there’s a company “that’ll miniaturize your ‘rack’ so you can wear your ribbons on your lapel—all of them—when you separate [from the military]. LOOK AT ME: I’M A HERO!”
One thing is certain: We have a ribbon- and badge-chasing military. (General David Petraeus was the worst.) People literally want to wear their “achievements” on their sleeve — or blouse — or jacket, even after they leave the military. Military members chase these baubles. They “achieve.” But what about quieter achievements that you can’t wear? How about integrity, honesty, commitment, fairness? What about intelligence? Dedication to the craft of arms that doesn’t involve getting a fancy badge like jump wings from France?
The Army’s retro-chic uniforms won’t be of any value if we keep valuing the wrong things. A Boy Scout military that keeps chasing merit badges for the sake of promotion of self is a very bad thing, irrespective of uniform design.
Yet there’s another side to all this. As my colonel-friend put it:
Here’s the real cost of this ribbon chasing. There’s an enormous number of man-hours expended on writing and chasing the paperwork to award these doodads… At a time when the military is allegedly overtaxed and burned out, why are they wasting so much effort on this nonsense? Why are some units hiring editors to keep the decorations moving? In survey after survey, AF pilots cited decorations and other administrative nonsense, not deployments, as the reason they don’t want to stay in. But since generals groom and promote only those who think like them (having selected them when they were captains), nothing changes. “You have to take care of your people,” they say, and if you listen to E-9s [the senior enlisted] people are happiest when they get doodads.
As another close military friend put it: “And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous number of ribbons and badges today. A captain today will have as many ribbons as a circa-1944 two-star [general]. [In their new retro uniforms,] they’ll just look like extras in a war movie.”
In sum, a jury of my peers has come back with a verdict on the Army’s new retro uniform: Love the look, but can you please bring back as well the humble citizen-soldiers of Ike’s era, the ones who won wars without all the gratuitous self-promotion?
I’ve been seeing a lot of headlines, and reading quite a few tributes, about John McCain. A common word used to describe him is “warrior,” as in this op-ed at Al Jazeera of all places. If you do a quick Google search with “John McCain” and “warrior” you’ll see what I mean.
I’m a firm believer in the citizen-soldier tradition. Warrior-speak, I believe, is inappropriate to this tradition and to the ideals of a democracy. “Warrior” should not be used loosely as a substitute for “fighter,” nor should it replace citizen-sailor, which is what John McCain was (or should have been).
Yes, John McCain came from a family of admirals. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy. He became a naval aviator. He was shot down and became a prisoner of war. He showed toughness and fortitude and endurance as a POW under torture. But all this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make him a “warrior.” Rather, he was a U.S. Navy officer, a product of a citizen-sailor tradition.
It’s corrosive to our democracy as well as to our military when we use “warrior” as a term of high praise. Many Americans apparently think “warrior” sounds cool and tough and manly, but there’s a thin line between “warrior” and “warmonger,” and both terms are corrosive to a country that claims it prefers peace to war.
In sum, it says something disturbing about our country and our culture when “warrior” has become the go-to term of ultimate praise. By anointing McCain as a “warrior,” we’re not praising him: we’re wounding our country.
Every now and again I look over my dad’s letters from World War II. He was attached to an armored headquarters company that didn’t go overseas, but he had friends who did serve in Europe during and after the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944. Also, he had two brothers, one who served in Europe attached to a quartermaster (logistics) company in the Army, the other who served in the Pacific as a Marine.
Reading my dad’s letters and those from his friends and brothers, you get a sense of the costs of war. They mention friends who’ve been killed or wounded in action; for example, a soldier who lost both his legs when his tank ran over a mine. (His fellow soldiers took up a collection for him.) They talk about strange things they’ve seen overseas, e.g. German buzz bombs or V-1 rockets, a crude version of today’s cruise missiles. They look forward to furloughs and trips to cities such as Paris. They talk about bad weather: cold, snow, mud. They talk about women (my dad’s brother, Gino, met a Belgian girl that he wanted to marry, but it was not to be). But perhaps most of all, they look forward to the war’s end and express a universal desire to ditch the military for civilian life.
All of my dad’s friends wanted to get out of the military and restart their civilian lives. They didn’t want a military career — not surprising for draftees who thought of themselves as citizen-soldiers (emphasis on the citizen). In their letters, they never refer to themselves as “warriors” or “warfighters” or “heroes,” as our society is wont to do today when talking about the troops. War sucked, and they wanted no part of it. One guy was happy, as he put it, that the Germans were getting the shit kicked out of them, and another guy was proud his armored unit had a “take no prisoners” approach to war, but this animus against the enemy was motivated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible.
Reading these letters written by citizen-soldiers of the “greatest generation” reminds me of how much we’ve lost since the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of the “all volunteer” military. Since the 9/11 attacks in particular, we’ve witnessed the rise of a warrior/warfighter ideal in the U.S. military, together with an ethos that celebrates all troops as “heroes” merely for the act of enlisting and putting on a uniform. My dad and his friends would have scoffed at this ethos — this idolization of “warriors” and “heroes” — as being foreign to a citizen-soldier military. Back then, the country that boasted most of warriors and heroes was not the USA: it was Nazi Germany.
Discarding the citizen-soldier ideal for a warrior ethos has been and remains a major flaw of America’s post-Vietnam military. It has exacerbated America’s transition from a republic to an empire, even as America’s very own wannabe Roman emperor, Donald Trump, tweets while America burns.
Men (and women) of the greatest generation served proudly if reluctantly during World War II. They fought to end the war as quickly as possible, and they succeeded. America’s endless wars today and our nation’s rampant militarization dishonor them and their sacrifices. If we wish to honor their service and sacrifice, we should bring our troops home, downsize our empire and our military budget, and end our wars.
I’ve written a lot about America’s warrior ethos and how it represents a departure from a citizen-soldier ideal as embodied by men like George Washington and Major Dick Winters (of “Band of Brothers” fame). This warrior ethos grew in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam and the ending of the draft. It gained impetus during the Reagan years and was symbolized in part by the development of fictional rogue symbols of warrior-toughness such as John Rambo. Today’s U.S. military has various warrior codes and songs and so on, further reinforcing ideals of Spartan toughness.
My writings against this warrior hype have, on occasion, drawn fire from those who identify as warriors. I’d like to share two examples.
Here is the first:
The day that we encourage our soldiers to be anything but warriors is the day that we start losing battles and wars. If we are controlled by citizens who are our ultimate leaders then it is up to them to handle the niceties of diplomacy and nation building. But most of them don’t have the balls to get into the thick of things and try and convert the citizens of the place we are fighting to play at being nice children in the sand pile. We had to dominate Japan to the nth degree to get them to surrender and so the same for Germany. You academics never to cease to amaze me with your naïveté.
This reader cites World War II and America’s victory over Japan and Germany without mentioning the Greatest Generation’s embodiment of the citizen-soldier ideal and their rejection of Japanese and Nazi militarism. Back then, America’s victory was interpreted as a triumph of democracy over authoritarian states like Japan and Germany. While it’s true the Soviet Union played the crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany, the Soviets ultimately lost the Cold War, another “victory” by a U.S. military that didn’t self-identify as warriors. Despite this history, this reader suggests that America’s recent military defeats are attributable to weak civilian leadership and a lack of warrior dominance. He fails to notice how America’s new ethos of the warrior, inculcated over the last 30 years, has produced nothing close to victory in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
My second example comes from a U.S. Marine:
I watched the transition we made from life takers and widow makers to peace keepers and other terms that did us no good whatsoever. Then, in 1987, along came a new Commandant, General Al Grey, who resurrected the warrior ethos in our Corps.
We were told, and accepted the fact, that the best way to win a war or battle was to kill the enemy in numbers that could not be sustained. We did just that during Desert Storm. I flew 67 combat missions in an F/A-18 and took great pride and satisfaction in killing as many Iraqis as I could so that when our infantry and other ground units pushed through the berms and other obstacles, they had a clear path to their objectives.
We need more emphasis on killing the enemy and maintaining a warrior ethos and less drivel from folks like you who think it’s some type of a debating match rather than combat we undertake when our nation goes to war.
Basically, this Marine argues that war is killing. Kill enough of the enemy and you win. Of course, winning by attrition and body count failed during the Vietnam War, but I’m guessing this Marine would argue that the U.S. military simply didn’t kill enough of the enemy there.
This Marine further sets up a straw man argument. Nowhere did I write or even suggest that war is “some type of debating match.” Nowhere did I write or even suggest that war doesn’t involve combat and killing. But criticism of the warrior ideal is often caricatured in this way, making it easier to dismiss it as “naïve” or “drivel.”
The warrior ethos is surging in America today, and not just within the military. Witness the U.S. media’s positive reaction to President Trump’s missile strikes on Syria or the use of “the mother of all bombs” against ISIS in Afghanistan. Gushing media praise comes to presidents who let slip the “beautiful” missiles and “massive” bombs of war.
Two centuries ago, the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, did so over an American fortress that was under attack on our soil. They gave proof through the night that America’s citizen-soldiers were defending our country (our flag was still there). Nowadays, our rocket’s red glare appears in Syrian skies, our bombs bursting do so in remote regions of Afghanistan, giving proof through the night that America’s warrior ethos is anywhere and everywhere, killing lots of foreign peoples in the name of “winning.”
Call me naïve, say I write drivel, but I don’t see this as a victory for our democracy, for our country, or even for our “warriors.”
The National Review labels the idea of a military coup in Trump’s America “hysterical.” Here’s David French criticizing my recent article at TomDispatch.com:
Here we go again — another article talking about how the retired generals in Trump’s cabinet, civilians who are nominated by a civilian and confirmed by a civilian senate, represent the erosion of the principle of civilian control over the military. But this time, there’s a hysterical twist. The nomination of James Mattis for secretary of defense and John Kelly for secretary of homeland security and the selection of Michael Flynn for national security adviser is worse than a real-life coup. No, really.
French goes on to say the following:
Lots of people read this nonsense. Lots of people believe this nonsense. I’ve been arguing for some time that the prime threat to our national unity isn’t action but reaction. Activists and pundits take normal politics (retired generals have a long history of serving this nation in civilian offices, beginning with George Washington) and respond with an overreaction that pushes their fellow citizens into believing that the sky is falling.
In my article for TomDispatch.com, I made the same point that retired generals have a long history of serving this nation, beginning with Washington. But Washington was a special case, an American Cincinnatus, a citizen first, a soldier second. As I mentioned in my article, today’s generals are cut from a different cloth. They self-identify as warriors first and foremost. Even when they retire, they usually go to work immediately for the military-industrial complex, making millions in the process.
French seems to think that if a civilian like Donald Trump nominates four recently retired warrior/generals, and if a civilian Congress approves them, this in no way constitutes a coup. And, strictly speaking, that’s true.
Yet consider this. These four warrior/generals will direct the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the National Security Council. Professional warriors are filling the highest leadership positions in a superpower military complex that is supposed to be overseen by civilians. They will command budgetary authority approaching a trillion dollars annually. If this isn’t a de facto military coup, what is?
Consider as well that their boss, Donald Trump, professes to admire two American generals: George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur. In choosing Patton and MacArthur, Trump has all the signs of an immature military hero-lover. Mature historians recognize that generals like George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley were far more distinguished (and far more in keeping with the American citizen-soldier ideal) than Patton and MacArthur. Indeed, both Patton and MacArthur were over-hyped, deliberately so, for propaganda purposes during Word War II. MacArthur was a disaster in the Philippines, and Patton wasn’t even needed during D-Day. Both fancied themselves to be warriors; both were vainglorious showboats, stuck on themselves and their alleged military brilliance.
“Retired” warriors are simply not the right men in a democracy to ride herd on the military. Warrior/generals like Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly — men defined by the military and loyal to it for their entire lives — are not going to become free-thinkers and tough-minded critics in a matter of months, especially when they’ve already cashed in after retirement by joining corporate boards affiliated with the military-industrial complex.
Look, I realize some Americans see nothing wrong with generals taking charge of America. As one disgruntled reader wrote me, “I value the experience of generals who led Soldiers and Marines in combat on the ground.”
Well, I value that too. So does our country, which is why the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) advise our president. But what Trump has done is to surround himself with a rival JCS, his own band of warriors, generals that he sees as the equivalent to Patton and MacArthur. He’s created a dynamic in which the onlyadvice he’ll get on national security is from military minds. And if you’re looking to Congress as a check on military rule, consider that the last time Congress formally exercised its authority to declare war was December 1941. Yes, 75 years ago this month.
Hey, nothing to worry about here. Don’t get hysterical. Let the “civilian” generals rule! After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Further Thoughts: I think many in America equate militarism to fascism; they think that, so long as jackbooted troops aren’t marching loudly down American streets and breaking down doors, militarism doesn’t exist here.
But militarism, as a descriptive term, also involves the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout civil society and political culture in America. Since 9/11, if not before, Americans have been actively encouraged to “support our troops” as a patriotic duty. Those troops have been lauded as “warriors,” “war-fighters,” and “heroes,” even as the U.S. military has become both thoroughly professionalized and increasingly isolated from civil society. This isolation, however, does not extend to public celebrations of the military, most visibly at major sporting events (e.g. NFL football games). (A small sign of this is major league baseball players wearing camouflaged uniforms to “honor” the troops.)
Trump’s decision — to put four senior “retired” generals in charge of America’s military and national security — acts as an accelerant to the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout America’s civil society and political culture. Again, the USA, one must recall, was founded on civilian control of the military as well as the ideal of the citizen-soldier. The latter ideal is dead, replaced as it has been by a new ideal, that of the warrior.
And civilian control? With four generals in command, enabled by an inexperienced civilian commander-in-chief whose ideal general is defined by Patton and MacArthur, you have in essence a repudiation of civilian control.
In October 2005, during the Iraq War, historian David M. Kennedy noted that “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”
We have, in essence, a post-democratic military in the U.S. today, which is the subject of my latest article for TomDispatch.com. You can read the entire article here; what follows is the first section on how our citizen-soldier tradition morphed into a professional force of volunteer-warriors augmented by privatized forces of mercenaries and corporations.
In the decades since the draft ended in 1973, a strange new military has emerged in the United States. Think of it, if you will, as a post-democratic force that prides itself on its warrior ethos rather than the old-fashioned citizen-soldier ideal. As such, it’s a military increasingly divorced from the people, with a way of life ever more foreign to most Americans (adulatory as they may feel toward its troops). Abroad, it’s now regularly put to purposes foreign to any traditional idea of national defense. In Washington, it has become a force unto itself, following its own priorities, pursuing its own agendas, increasingly unaccountable to either the president or Congress.
Three areas highlight the post-democratic transformation of this military with striking clarity: the blending of military professionals with privatized mercenaries in prosecuting unending “limited” wars; the way senior military commanders are cashing in on retirement; and finally the emergence of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as a quasi-missionary imperial force with a presence in at least 135 countries a year (and counting).
The All-Volunteer Military and Mercenaries: An Undemocratic Amalgam
I’m a product of the all-volunteer military. In 1973, the Nixon administration ended the draft, which also marked the end of a citizen-soldier tradition that had served the nation for two centuries. At the time, neither the top brass nor the president wanted to face a future in which, in the style of the Vietnam era just then winding up, a force of citizen-soldiers could vote with their feet and their mouths in the kinds of protest that had only recently left the Army in significant disarray. The new military was to be all volunteers and a thoroughly professional force. (Think: no dissenters, no protesters, no antiwar sentiments; in short, no repeats of what had just happened.) And so it has remained for more than 40 years.
Most Americans were happy to see the draft abolished. (Although young men still register for selective service at age 18, there are neither popular calls for its return, nor serious plans to revive it.) Yet its end was not celebrated by all. At the time, some military men advised against it, convinced that what, in fact, did happen would happen: that an all-volunteer force would become more prone to military adventurism enabled by civilian leaders who no longer had to consider the sort of opposition draft call-ups might create for undeclared and unpopular wars.
In 1982, historian Joseph Ellis summed up such sentiments in a prophetic passage in an essay titled “Learning Military Lessons from Vietnam” (from the book Men at War):
“[V]irtually all studies of the all-volunteer army have indicated that it is likely to be less representative of and responsive to popular opinion, more expensive, more jealous of its own prerogatives, more xenophobic — in other words, more likely to repeat some of the most grievous mistakes of Vietnam … Perhaps the most worrisome feature of the all-volunteer army is that it encourages soldiers to insulate themselves from civilian society and allows them to cling tenaciously to outmoded visions of the profession of arms. It certainly puts an increased burden of responsibility on civilian officials to impose restraints on military operations, restraints which the soldiers will surely perceive as unjustified.”
Ellis wrote this more than 30 years ago — before Desert Storm, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the launching of the War on Terror. These wars (and other U.S. military interventions of the last decades) have provided vivid evidence that civilian officials have felt emboldened in wielding a military freed from the constraints of the old citizen army. Indeed, it says something of our twenty-first-century moment that military officers have from time to time felt the need to restrain civilian officials rather than vice versa. Consider, for instance, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki’s warning early in 2003 that a post-invasion Iraq would need to be occupied by “several hundred thousand” troops. Shinseki clearly hoped that his (all-too-realistic) estimate would tamp down the heady optimism of top Bush administration officials that any such war would be a “cakewalk,” that the Iraqis would strew “bouquets” of flowers in the path of the invaders, and that the U.S. would be able to garrison an American-style Iraq in the fashion of South Korea until hell froze over. Prophetic Shinseki was, but not successful. His advice was dismissed out of hand, as was he.
Events since Desert Storm in 1991 suggest that the all-volunteer military has been more curse than blessing. Partially to blame: a new dynamic in modern American history, the creation of a massive military force that is not of the people, by the people, or for the people. It is, of course, a dynamic hardly new to history. Writing in the eighteenth century about the decline and fall of Rome, the historian Edward Gibbon noted that:
“In the purer ages of the commonwealth [of Rome], the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest, as well as duty, to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade.”
As the U.S. has become more authoritarian and more expansive, its military has come to serve the needs of others, among them elites driven by dreams of profit and power. Some will argue that this is nothing new. I’ve read my Smedley Butler and I’m well aware that historically the U.S. military was often used in un-democratic ways to protect and advance various business interests. In General Butler’s day, however, that military was a small quasi-professional force with a limited reach. Today’s version is enormous, garrisoning roughly 800 foreign bases across the globe, capable of sending its Hellfire missile-armed drones on killing missions into country after country across the Greater Middle East and Africa, and possessing a vision of what it likes to call “full-spectrum dominance” meant to facilitate “global reach, global power.” In sum, the U.S. military is far more powerful, far less accountable — and far more dangerous.
As a post-democratic military has arisen in this country, so have a set of “warrior corporations” — that is, private, for-profit mercenary outfits that now regularly accompany American forces in essentially equal numbers into any war zone. In the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Blackwater was the most notorious of these, but other mercenary outfits like Triple Canopy and DynCorp were also deeply involved. This rise of privatized militaries and mercenaries naturally contributes to actions that are inherently un-democratic and divorced from the will and wishes of the people. It is also inherently a less accountable form of war, since no one even bothers to count the for-profit dead, nor do their bodies come home in flag-draped coffins for solemn burial in military cemeteries; and Americans don’t approach such mercenaries to thank them for their service. All of which allows for the further development of a significantly under-the-radar form of war making.
The phrase “limited war,” applied to European conflicts from the close of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 to the French Revolution in 1789, and later to conventional wars in the nuclear age, has fresh meaning in twenty-first-century America. These days, the limits of limited war, such as they are, fall less on the warriors and more on the American people who are increasingly cut out of the process. They are, for instance, purposely never mobilized for battle, but encouraged to act as though they were living in a war-less land. American war efforts, which invariably take place in distant lands, are not supposed to interfere with business as usual in the “homeland,” which, of course, means consumerism and consumption. You will find no rationing in today’s America, nor calls for common sacrifice of any sort. If anything, wars have simply become another consumable item on the American menu. They consume fuel and resources, money, and intellect, all in staggering amounts. In a sense, they are themselves a for-profit consumable, often with tie-ins to video games, movies, and other forms of entertainment.
In the rush for money and in the name of patriotism, the horrors of wars, faced squarely by many Americans in the Vietnam War era, are now largely disregarded. One question that this election season has raised: What if our post-democratic military is driven by an autocrat who insists that it must obey his whims in the cause of “making America great again”?
I’ve written several articles about the United States and creeping militarism (see here and here, for example). This should be obvious, but I’ll say it again: Calling attention to the militarization of American society is pro-democracy, not anti-military. Indeed, back in the citizen-soldier era of my father, being “gung ho” for the military wasn’t even applauded within the military!
As one veteran wrote to me:
When I was in the military, being “gung ho” was not considered a compliment by most of my friends… Of course we were not professional military types, just taking our turns to do our duty. We remembered the American soldier epitomized by Bill Mauldin as “Willie” and “Joe” who fought successfully against the German Army and the Japanese fanatics…The popular war movies of WWII after the war usually pitted the austere, indoctrinated Nazis fighting to demonstrate the Nazi superiority against the average American citizen soldier. Remember the movie “Battleground”? Today the images of our Army uncomfortably remind me of the way the German superman was portrayed that we overcame.
[There is a] disjunction between the cult of military hero-worship in American society and American ignorance of veterans’ problems. I am continually disgusted with those who are pimping off the mystique [surrounding our troops] who don’t deserve any special regard for their military service. And a final but important point: many combat vets, knowing full well the realities of combat and its effects on combatants, do not want to be thanked at all [by the public].
America’s militarism both feeds and draws support from our endless wars. The war on terror has been ongoing since 2001. So too the war in Afghanistan. Iraq keeps getting more chaotic. Miscalculation in Syria could lead to World War III.
Speaking of future wars, just look at the rhetoric of our more popular political candidates for president, to include Donald “bomb those suckers” Trump and Ted “carpet bomb” Cruz. Chickenhawk politicians are nothing but opportunists. They may be leading the war charge, but they know they’re backed by a society in thrall to military spectacle (as represented, for example, by pom-pom shaking cheerleaders in skimpy camouflage outfits).
Unstinting praise of America’s “warriors” and “heroes” is reinforced by feel-good corporate/military advertising. Recall Budweiser’s “welcome home” party for an Army lieutenant that aired during the Super Bowl a couple of years back. Or red-white-and-blue Budweiser cans to “honor” the troops on July 4th. “Saluting” the troops with colorful beer cans – really?
Signs of militarism USA are everywhere. Police forces with MRAPs and similar tank-like vehicles. Colleges and universities jostling for “defense” funding (even bucolic campuses want those war bucks). Popular games that glorify military mayhem, such as the “Call of Duty” video games. Even mundane items like camouflage headsets for NFL coaches.
The passionate discussion generated by our last article, America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed, was heartening. Our military academies will not be improved if we merely accept the status quo, with allowance for minor, mainly cosmetic, reforms. But truly radical reforms are difficult to achieve since the academies are so deeply rooted in tradition. A reluctance to change can be a good thing, especially when an institution is performing well. Yet since the Korean Conflict, and certainly since the Vietnam War, America’s military performance has been mediocre. Placing blame here is obviously contentious, with military professionals tending to point to poor decisions by civilian leaders, among other causes.
Rather than placing blame, let’s entertain some probing questions about the future structure and mission of military academies, with the intent of making them better schools for developing military leaders, as well as better institutions for defending America and advancing its values.
Here in no particular order are a few questions and proposals:
1. Is America best served by military academies that emulate undergraduate colleges in providing a course of study lasting four years? Or should the academies recruit from students who have already finished most (or all) of an undergraduate degree? The academies could then develop a concentrated course of study, specifically tailored to military studies, lasting roughly two years. In effect, the academies would become graduate schools, with all cadets graduating with master’s degrees in military studies with varying concentrations (engineering, science, English, history, and so on). Such a change would also eliminate the need to kowtow to undergraduate accreditation boards such as ABET.
2. West Point and the AF Academy rely primarily on serving military officers as instructors, whereas Annapolis relies primarily on civilian instructors. Is this a distinction without difference? Would West Point and the AF Academy profit from more civilian instructors, and Annapolis from more military ones? Should all the service academies work harder to bring in top instructors from the Ivy League and similar universities as full-time visiting professors?
3. How much of today’s experience at military academies is busy work? Or work driven mainly by tradition, i.e. “We do this because we’ve always done this.” Do we still need lots of inspections, marching, parades, and the like? Do freshman (call them plebes, doolies, smacks, what have you) truly profit from being sleep-deprived and harassed and otherwise forced into compliance as a rite of passage in their first year? Does this truly develop character? Or are cadet schedules so jam-packed that they have little time to think?
4. Why do cadets continue to have limited exposure to the enlisted ranks? NCOs are the backbone of a professional military, a fact that is not stressed enough in officer training. How do we increase opportunities for cadets to work with NCOs in the field?
5. A strong emphasis on physical fitness and sports is smart. But is it necessary to place so much emphasis on big-time sports such as Division I-A football? What is gained by focusing academy recruiting on acquiring athletes that will help to win football games? What is gained by offering such athletes preferential treatment within the corps of cadets? (Some will claim that athletes receive no preferential treatment; if you believe this, I suggest you listen very carefully to cadets who are outside of the charmed circle of celebrated athletes.)
6. When I was a serving officer at the AF Academy, cadets used to ask me whether I believed they were “the best and the brightest.” Certain senior leaders had told them that, by virtue of being selected to attend a military academy, they were better than their civilian peers at universities such as Harvard or MIT. Is it wise to sell cadets on the idea that they are America’s best and brightest?
How I answered the question: I told my cadets that comparing military academies to universities such as Harvard or MIT was an apples/oranges situation. First and foremost, military academies were and are about developing military leaders of strong character. If you compared cadets to their peers at Harvard or MIT, of course you’d find smarter students at these and similar top-flight universities. But that wasn’t the point. Military academies had a different intent, a different purpose, a different mission. This answer seemed to satisfy my cadets; what I sensed was that they were tired of being told they were America’s best, when they could see for themselves that this often wasn’t true.
We do our cadets no service when we applaud them merely for showing up and working hard, just as our civilian leaders do the military no service when they applaud us as the best-led, best-equipped, best-trained, and so on, military force in all of human history. Any student of military history should laugh at such hyperbolic praise.
7. And now for a big question: Are the academies contributing to America’s current state of perpetual war? Have we abandoned Washington’s ideal of Cincinnatus, the citizen-soldier, the soldier who fights reluctantly and who seeks not military honors but only a return to normalcy and an end to war?
Some will argue that the world today demands perpetual vigilance and a willingness to use overwhelming “shock and awe” force to intimidate and defeat America’s enemies. And that only a professional corps of devoted regulars can lead such a force. Perhaps so.
But is it time to consider new paradigms?
What are the most serious threats that America faces today? For example, American infrastructure is crumbling even as we spend hundreds of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan with indifferent results. Should West Point return to its roots, unleashing its officer-engineers to lead a new Civilian Conservation Corps to rebuild America? (Recall that George C. Marshall ran the CCC.) Should America’s military be refocused not on winning the “global war on terror” (unwinnable by definition, for terror will always be with us), but on preserving the global environment?
As humans wage war against our planet and biosphere, should not a force dedicated to the defense of America focus on preserving our livelihood as represented by our planet’s resources? With its global presence, the American military is uniquely situated to take the lead here. Indeed, the U.S. Navy already advertises itself as “A global force for good.” Can we make that a reality?
Too pie in the sky? The U.S. military has enormous resources and a global role in leadership. What would it mean to America if our military took the lead in preserving the earth while rebuilding the core strength of America? Aren’t these “wars” (against global environmental degradation; for America’s internal infrastructure) worth fighting? Are they not more winnable than a perpetual war on terror?
There you have it. Let’s hear your ideas in the comments. And thanks.