Writing this week of Veterans Day and the centennial of the close of the First World War, naturally a topic afoot is the place of a military and its veterans in a free society.
A brass hat named Julius Caesar had some very specific thoughts on that subject, which he showcased by crossing the Rubicon River, in what was then northern Italy, with his 13th Legion in 49 BC. By his action he put the Roman Senate on notice that their government could pound sand and he would decide how Rome was ruled. This was a maneuver that started the Roman Civil War.
The Brits had the same idea toward their nominal master the King in 1645 at Naseby. The Germans in WWI gave much civilian power to the military. The French had this issue as late as 1961. The Asians and the South Americans used to engage in it every other month, a tad less as of recently. Annapolis grad Robert Heinlein theorized on a veteran-run world government in his “Starship Troopers.” Examples of a military elite usurping civilian power are numerous in history. The reasons are varied. The underlying issues tend not to be and can be found in chrysalis in many societies. Including this one.
These thoughts struck me as I was touring the National Archives yesterday morning (they had Vietnam-era Hueys on the lawn and so it was megacool), in my vain attempt to explain the gravitas of American history to four of my six sprogs. As we were discussing a planned afternoon visit to Arlington Military Cemetery, I realized by his mien that my middle son had some conception of the proper place of the military in society, as I, his older brother, his mom, and his grandfather all served. He had learned by osmosis. My two youngest daughters, teenagers, were thinking of nothing past midterm exams and social media. My eldest daughter is at a prestigious DC college and, as freshmen will, wants desperately to be liked. So she parrots the things she hears there so she will fit in. Those things are generally anti-military and the poor dear throws around terms like “military-industrial complex,” knowing neither their meaning nor their genesis. Hopefully she will grow out of her silly non-empirical ideology. I did of mine, as I was a Randian at her age. How embarrassing is that?
Anyway, we did not go to Arlington partly because of the blustery cold weather and their lack of suitable attire and partly because my daughters thought it was “just a boring cemetery.” I should have insisted but we went to Dumbarton Oaks instead. My mistake, as someone has to teach the little prats things they’d rather not learn.
When I taught college I saw the same blank stares, or spewing of clichés, when I tried to explain, again to college freshmen, that all they saw around them was paid for by the blood of young Americans, mostly men, many younger than themselves. But it was like trying to explain calculus to a wombat, such was their knowledge of American history, much less of the armed forces. You even hear that the military is the option of last resort for those who can’t make it in civilian society. That would be interesting news to Ross Perot, George H.W. Bush, and Dwight Eisenhower, not to mention many of the men who served during the draft years of 1940-1973 and led this country to the pinnacle of world economic power and prestige. They achieved that when they were long since out of uniform. But my former students didn’t know that and probably didn’t care.
There is a dangerous cleavage in a society when the protected make a less than mundane effort to understand those who protect them. Yellow ribbons and other superficial “We Love the Troops” expressions of support only go so far. Americans should strive to comprehend the life-altering sacrifices those in the military are ready to make for complete strangers every day they put on a uniform. The failure to do so makes some in the military bitter and can lead to an attitude that fosters resentment toward civilian society. Police officers face the same dilemma. There are few veterans who haven’t encountered an unsavory aspect of society and thought to themselves, I put my life on the line, my friends died and were wounded, for this, for them?
That thinking, unchecked, can make times ripe for a crossing of a Rubicon.
Morris Janowitz and Sam Huntington, two distinguished veterans and scholars, studied this deeply, founding the discipline of military sociology. Janowitz was a WWII veteran of the OSS. After Army service he endeavored graduate studies at the University of Chicago and began to develop the idea that would lead to his early 1960s publication, “The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait.”
By studying military members in and out of uniform, Janowitz came to realize that the military was a separate society unto itself with a distinctive set of norms. For example, we vets know, few civilians do, that the military has a separate set of laws, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). That’s why many were surprised that a general of high rank and note like David Petraeus could have been prosecuted for adultery. Under the UCMJ that is an offense. Imagine if civilians could be prosecuted for adultery? Half the national budget would go for jail construction. But such are the honor codes of a warrior society that by definition must be different from the society whose mission it is to protect. Veterans, inspired by these values at a formative age, seldom forget them.
Like a sort of an armed Amish, the military subculture tends to stick to itself and eschews modern notions of culture for values that many civilians would consider hidebound and anachronistic. Certain of us think that military separateness is a very good thing in a society that considers personal honor a relic of the WWI trenches. We know that without personal honor there is no command credibility. And sans that, no coherent military structure.
Janowitz eventually came to the conclusion that civil and military societies were converging, given the changing demographics of the military and its growing reliance on technology. Huntington went another way, seeing the military as a professionally feudal organization, not necessarily bound by civil virtues and mores. They both certainly advocated civilian control over the military. But Janowitz saw that in the context of a close civil-military relationship that would foster greater understanding between the two societal players. Huntington saw it better served by emphasizing the elite professionalism of the military that would foster a better fighting force. They both are right, to a degree. But the advantage goes to Huntington because of the social imperatives of a warrior society.
On a side note, in his 1993 Clash of Civilizations, Huntington prophesized that after the fall of the Soviets into the dustbin of history our next big geopolitical challenge would come from an irreconcilable cultural foe, radical Islam. He said that eight years before 9/11. In his last book, in 2004, “Who are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity,” he forecast the threat to our national ethos and sovereignty of unrestricted immigration from Latin America. His prescience on both topics is seen every day in our headlines.
I personally saw these questions, concerning the role of a veteran in society, played out daily when I ran a homeless shelter in Philadelphia for U.S. military vets. Some veterans had not fared well since they left the military, as their reliance on a structured order was shattered when they immediately were thrown into the maelstrom of the modern day. As this existence emphasizes the prosaic and rarely deals with existentially intense decisions, it was the opposite of the military. This is true especially in combat, where superficiality is minimal but life and death is present every second. Our job was to build a bridge from the military back to civilian life. Throw in service member umbrage at the seeming ease of the civilian burden and our mission at the shelter dealt in depth with the age-old clash between the two societies, one always within the other, but not completely of it.
That’s one reason veterans look askance at national leaders and others who easily advocate military adventures, without said leaders or their progeny coming anywhere near service in uniform. I myself have often thought: Oh I see, your precious tail is too important to risk. You getting your MBA or law degree was too vital to the national interest to sully your attire with mud and your body with injury. But it’s perfectly okay to let someone else do the fighting and dying, paying your debt to a free society, while you beat the drum to war, parasite.
Since the 1973 end of the draft, and the associated end of many in society having anything to do with the military, we have seen, perhaps in consequence of such, the rise of the beta male in pop culture and even in national leadership. When the societal consciousness no longer notices a subculture, it can be replaced as an icon. Out with John Wayne and duty. In with Beto O’Rourke and the notion that all are entitled to everything. For if freedom has no cost, why pay it?
It is good then to hear another voice on this centennial, a voice that knew and lived the cost. It is of an infantry officer who served in The Great War and was to die a week before it ended. If American society can hear and understand the sacrifice in the sublime words of Wilfred Owen, then maybe our Rubicon will never come…
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.