Should You Join the U.S. Military?

W.J. Astore

When I was eighteen, the U.S. Army promised I could “be all that you can be.” The Navy said “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” The Marines were all about “The few — the proud — the Marines.” And the Air Force promised “a great way of life.” I guess I wanted a great way of life, so I joined the Air Force.

Seriously, I never thought I’d serve for twenty years in uniform. My career was relatively easy in the sense that no one ever shot at me, nor did I ever have to take a life. I got an excellent education, met good people, went to interesting places, and got to teach a subject I loved for six years.

Recently, I learned that a member of my family is thinking of joining the military after high school. He hasn’t asked for my advice, but his interest in wearing the uniform made me think about the advice I’d give him if he did ask. What can you say to young men and women that can help them to make an informed decision — the best possible one for them?

It’s easy to be gung-ho about the military. It’s also easy, I think, to dismiss military service with extreme prejudice. The best advice is honest, balanced, and attuned to the person seeking it. In this spirit, what would I say to a young person contemplating enlisting in the military?

Let’s tackle the disadvantages first, the downside and drawbacks to military service, the aspects of military life that potential recruits rarely think about. Here are a few of them:

  1. You could die or be seriously wounded in the military. Think of PTSD, TBI (traumatic brain injury), and similar “hidden” wounds of war. America is incessantly at war, somewhere, and there’s always a chance you could die. But of course young people think they’re immortal and may even crave danger, so this reality rarely deters them.
  2. You may have to kill other people. Perhaps even innocent people, because war is extremely messy and chaotic. Such acts of violence against humanity may lead to moral injury that will haunt your conscience. Are you prepared to kill? Truly?
  3. You sacrifice personal autonomy and some of your rights when you join the military. You have to be willing to follow orders. You can’t just quit and walk away. The military insists on obedience and discipline. Are you prepared to do as you’re told?
  4. If you think you’re important, you’re not: and the military will remind you of this. You’re a pawn in a vast bureaucracy; you’re at the mercy of a system that is often capricious and treats you as a number. You’ll quickly learn the wisdom of acronyms like SNAFU (situation normal, all fucked up) and FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition). They may sound funny, until they come to describe your life and career in the military.
  5. You may wish to ask yourself when was the last “good” or necessary war that America has fought for the purpose of true national defense. You may discover that recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere were not “good” wars in service of your Oath of Office to the U.S. Constitution. If this gives you pause, if this troubles you, I suggest you don’t enlist.
  6. Take the time to read about veterans who are against war. Consider this letter written by Daniel Hale, who is currently serving prison time for his courageous stance against the murderously imprecise nature of drone warfare. Read about Pat Tillman, the NFL player who enlisted in the Army and who was killed by friendly fire, then used as a propaganda prop by the U.S. military. Don’t think something similar can’t happen to you.

I could mention other disadvantages, such as frequent moves, nonsensical jobs, bad bosses, etc., but many civilian jobs share these. Work isn’t easy; it’s why it’s called “work.”

Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart. A bomber pilot during World War II, Stewart suffered from what we today call PTSD. A heroic man, but he’d be the first man to deny that he was a hero. Put differently, Stewart didn’t need war to make him great.

Now, how about the advantages to military service. I know that some of my readers will challenge these, and rightly so, but here are a few “positive waves” about enlisting and taking the oath:

  1. Tradition. For some enlistees, it’s about family tradition. I wasn’t from a strong military family, but my father and his two brothers served in World War II; so did my mother’s brother; and, more recently, my older brother enlisted at the tail end of the Vietnam War and three brothers-in-law also served, one in Vietnam during that horrendous war.
  2. Opportunity. The military today is respected within our society, even venerated. Serving in the military may provide you with unique opportunities both during and after your service.
  3. Teamwork. In a selfish “you can have it all” society, the military reminds us of the importance of teamwork.
  4. Idealism. Taking the Oath of Office should mean something to you. If it doesn’t, don’t enlist.
  5. Purpose, discipline, responsibility, maturity. The military isn’t the only way to live a life of purpose, a disciplined life, a life of responsibility, a life centered on growth and maturation. But, for more than a few people, the military has provided a path forward, a sense of pride and clarity, though that can come at tremendous cost, as explained above.
  6. And, of course, the normal reasons people join: pay, benefits, an opportunity to travel, to start life over, perhaps to escape a bad situation, and so on.

Enlistment, in sum, is a personal decision that must be weighed carefully. What I would say is this: remember the words of Yoda the Jedi Master. “Wars not make one great.” If you’re thinking of enlisting with a hero complex in mind, don’t do it. You’re too immature and you’re misguided to boot. Military service should be about service; it’s also about sacrifice. And you must always remember you may have to make the “ultimate” sacrifice, which is a euphemism for getting killed.

As the Outlaw Josey Wales said: Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.

You’re your own person: Do you what you think is right, and good luck.

Update (11/30/21):

This photo by Jonathan Ernst of Reuters shows the “Gold Star” tree at the White House. It’s a tribute to “the fallen” in recent wars. That expression, “the fallen,” is truly a lamentable euphemism. Of course, we should remember the dead, for which we have Memorial Day and “gardens of stone,” i.e. cemeteries. Should we also remember the dead as ornaments on a Christmas tree? I have my doubts here.

Will the U.S. Military Hammer Strike the Citizen Nails?

2980
Caption at the Guardian: Members of an airborne military unit are deployed on the streets of Washington DC on Thursday. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

W.J. Astore

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails.  This year alone, the U.S. government will spend roughly $740 billion on its military, though the real figure when you add in all costs exceeds a trillion dollars.  With so much “invested,” as the Pentagon likes to say, in that military, there’s a strong tendency to see it as the solution to the most stubborn problems.  All problems become nails either to be whacked down or pulled out and discarded depending upon which end of the military hammer our rulers choose to employ.

Americans are used to “our” military being used to hammer home American exceptionalism in faraway, foreign places.  But what about when that hammer is deployed to Main Street USA to hammer peaceful protesters into line?  Or, alternatively, to pull them out of the streets and into the jails?  That hammer doesn’t seem to be such a solid “investment,” does it?

It appears the Trump administration has now backed away from plans to commit regular federal troops to “dominate” protesters.  Opposition from retired generals and admirals like James Mattis, John Allen, and Mike Mullen may have helped.  But if and when protests become more widespread or embarrassing to Trump personally, don’t be surprised if the “bunker boy” calls again for troops to be committed, the U.S. Constitution be damned.  After all, he’s described peaceful protesters led by clergy in Washington, D.C. as “terrorists,” and we should all know by now what a “war on terror” looks like, led by generals like that same James Mattis.

Remember when a militarized hammer was a symbol of that Evil Empire, the Soviet Union?  Remember when violent suppression of peaceful protests was something “they” did, you know, the bad commies, in places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia?  As Paul Krugman has noted, today much of the GOP would cheer on Trump if he launched a military coup in the name of “law and order.”

Echoing this, one white American from Michigan told a reporter he “applauds” Trump’s crackdown and “fully supports” Trump if he orders federal troops into American streets to suppress protests.  In the same story from the Guardian, reporting from the white suburb of St Clair Shores, many residents “share the president’s world view that the police and national guard are heroically battling violent agitators, not brutally suppressing largely peaceful protesters.”

The story noted that “Several men who were part of a construction crew called the protests ‘stupid’ and a ‘waste of time and energy.’  Some even suggested Floyd was at fault for his death because he allegedly committed a crime, despite general worldwide outrage at the brutal manner of his killing and the criminal charges it has now brought against the officers involved.”

So, you have Americans who support the brutal murder of George Floyd, with the police acting as judge, jury, and executioner, simply because Floyd allegedly passed a counterfeit bill.  They even support a military crackdown, again in the name of “law and order.”

Who’s the evil empire now, America?

Talking About Military Leadership

vietnam

W.J. Astore

In 2004, when I was still on active duty, I spoke on leadership at the Panetta Institute in Monterey, California.  At the time, I was the associate provost/dean of students at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.

To prepare for my talk, I jotted down a few notes; I’ve decided not to update these or change them.  (I’m sure I’d say a few different things today; then again, I’ve been retired from the military since 2005.)

Here are my notes from 2004 (with a few additions for the sake of clarity):

What is uniquely military about military leadership?

  • Life and death situations (but also true of Police, Fire, MDs, etc.)
  • Mandate to take the lives of others under certain ROEs (rules of engagement)
  • Inherent chaos (fog and friction) of war.  Thus leaders must promote cohesion—bonds of trust within a unit—else the unit may collapse under the stresses of war
  • Possibility of routine loss of leaders on the battlefield requires the development of junior leaders with the willingness and emotional strength to take command when needed
  • Importance of an officer’s commission from the president, and his/her oath of office to the Constitution.  Fidelity to the Constitution, and Integrity and Honor in general, are essential qualities
  • Role of long-serving NCOs (non-commissioned officers)—take care of them, and help them take care of junior enlisted.  Put their needs before your own.  Share sacrifices: Yes, RHIP (rank has its privileges).  But officers should eat same grub as grunts.  Take care of the needs of the men and women you’re leading before you address your own needs.

No one personality type.  Our greatest leaders have been everything from vainglorious (MacArthur) to self-effacing (Gen Bradley)

“They don’t care how much you know, but they’ll know how much you care.”  Actually, your subordinates care about both.  Combination of emotional intelligence with intellect and hard work.  You don’t have to be the brightest or best, but you may need to compensate with work.

Respect for subordinates; and don’t play favorites

Listen before acting

Keep calm in times of stress

Role model: As a leader, you are always being watched

Humility but not diffidence: If you don’t lead, who will?

Refuse to tolerate incompetence

Recognize top performers.  Don’t take your best people for granted.  Remember to reward them.

Communication: Telling people to suck it up sounds tough and appropriate in a military context.  But are you sucking it up too?  Nothing more corrosive than hypocrisy at the top.  Integrity and sincerity are essential.

Look inside yourself.  Why do you want to be a leader?

Academic leadership: Irony is that many academics avoid leadership positions because they distract from individual scholarship and academic achievement.  [This mindset is] foreign to the military.  Officers and NCOs trained to lead.  Necessary because war might quickly knock out commanders; subordinates must be ready to act.  Thus department chairs [in academe] often rotate; “burden sharing” rather than leadership.  Healthy iconoclasm in academe, but it should not get in the way of leading.

“Question authority” is not enough.  “Change authority” or “Become authority” if you don’t like the answers you’re hearing.

At the USAF Academy, there was a “Bring Me Men” ramp, but that slogan was removed due to sexual harassment scandals, even though the sentiment was based on a quotation from the late 19th century.  But what it always was intended to mean was “Bring Me Leaders.”  Leaders have moral courage to take responsibility and report clearly to the people.  As commissioned officers, we swear an oath to the Constitution, and to protect it against foreign and domestic enemies.  We do not swear an oath of allegiance to a specific leader or monarch.  But an officer must also respect the chain of command.  You go outside that chain at your peril.

Get to know your military.  How many of you plan to serve in the military?  Congress is ignorant of military matters.  A minority have served (about 30%, whereas in 1969 it was nearly 70%) and even fewer have sons and daughters who are willing to serve.  Only six congressional representatives and one senator have children serving in the military.  7/535 members = 1.3%.  Among the rich and connected, the military is not seen as a desirable profession compared to law, medicine, business, or other, honorable professions.

How to get to know “your” military: Take an ROTC course at your college/university.  Attend a military ceremony.  Ask questions.  The U.S. military needs your interest.  Perhaps too narrowly drawn from the lower classes, but that’s not the military’s fault.  No recruit is turned away because he or she is too rich or because he or she attended Stanford or Berkeley.

How would you like to be the leader of a U.S. military unit in Iraq that was expecting to rotate after a year, after which your men and women are told they have to stay for six more months, possibly longer?  How do you keep people’s spirits up?  Keep them focused on the mission while they’re separated from loved ones for months at a time?

End of notes.  Comments, readers?

Thanking Me for My Service

US_Flag_Backlit

W.J. Astore

A visitor to my home today saw my retirement plaque, which marks my twenty years of service in the US Air Force.  He immediately thanked me for my service to my country.

I appreciated his thanks because I took (and take) some pride in having served honorably in the military.  But people who thank me make me uncomfortable.  Why, you ask?

Because I believe it was an honor to serve my country.  It was an honor to be entrusted by the people of our great land with their trust.

So when people thank me, I always feel like thanking them back for allowing me to serve; for giving me this honor, this privilege.

Now, I write articles that are often critical of today’s military.  And there’s lots of things to criticize.  But I don’t believe in criticizing the military’s ethic of service, an ethic that should be based on humility and tinged with pride.  Because our nation’s ideal is a citizen-soldier military.  Note how the word “citizen” comes first.  We are not supposed to want a military composed of mercenaries or warriors.  Such a military is inconsistent with our democratic ideals.

Also inconsistent with our democratic ideals is our national tendency to idolize officers of high military rank.  You know, the generals and admirals, men like Tommy Franks or David Petraeus.  Why?  Because any citizen-civilian outranks any citizen-soldier in the military, generals included.

We must always remember that military members serve us: we the people.  We don’t serve them.  And we must remember as well that our president, a civilian commander-in-chief, is first and foremost exactly that: a civilian.  And that he’s not the commander-in-chief of all Americans; merely of those Americans who choose to don a uniform and take the oath of office (to include active duty, reserves, and National Guard members).

These are fundamental points (or they should be).  They are derived from our Constitution.  Our founders saw (reluctantly) the need for a military, and perhaps our greatest founder, George Washington, was also arguably our greatest military leader.  Not because he was a Napoleon, but precisely because he wasn’t.  He was our Cincinnatus, a citizen-soldier, with the emphasis firmly placed on citizen.  A man who placed his duty to the Constitution, and to the people, before himself and military vainglory.

If you wish to thank a service member for his or her service, by all means do so.  Just don’t be completely surprised when they deflect your thanks, or even thank you back for the honor and privilege of being able to serve in the name of the people to protect our highest ideals as enshrined in our Constitution.