In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part Three)

Death row and a brothel in Las Vegas; a pilot's lecture on creationism; genealogy and the Mormons; higher learning in Austin; a gun show in Fort Worth; and the rain-struck opening of the Clinton Library

I know, of course, that in all countries in the world, and necessarily in America as well, an army has contradictory faces.

And I'm sure that the United States Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, which trains officers for one branch of the armed services, is not the ideal observation post from which to judge the recent evolution of the military as a whole.

But when you come down to it …

These boys with chubby, sensible faces …

This girl from St. Louis, Roslyn Schulte, long brown hair pulled back in a bun, beautiful, gentle, deep gaze, who went to one of the best high schools in the country …

This other cadet, who doesn't know the name Clausewitz but who has over his bedside table a copied-out quotation from Rabbi Harold Kushner on the meaning of life, death, suffering …

This table at lunchtime where eight cadets out of twelve confess, in the heat of a surprisingly free debate, that they weren't in favor of the war in Iraq, because, according to them, the chances of a "police option" weren't fully explored.

This class, finally, which I am allowed to observe, where the questions under consideration—the weighty and highly strategic problems that will be debated for an hour by a dozen future knightlings of the sky, as they all sit calmly behind desks arranged in a semicircle—are these: First, "How many times in the morning do you push the snooze button on your alarm clock? In what circumstances? Why? And how can you get rid of this annoying habit?" and second, "How can you stop this other pathological behavior, much more serious for a future pilot and officer—the smoking habit? Do you think the right method is to use chewing gum? To slip the money you've saved from every unbought pack into a piggy bank and see how much you end up with after a certain period of time? If you're married, or dating, should you get a gentle massage every time you don't smoke? Or should you be punished if you smoke, and be made to eat your cigarette?"

Why did you enlist? I ask them. Why, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, does one decide to become an Air Force officer?

Some (whose decisions, they tell me, date from the shock of 9/11): To defend my country.

Others (who, obviously, are aware of all the major historical debates over whether the United States has the right or not to meddle in the affairs of other nations): To defend the Constitution.

Still others (supporters of a neo-conservative foreign policy—which is to say, plainly, a more active, more aggressive foreign policy): Beyond even our own Constitution, to defend the values of freedom on which it is based, and to defend them everywhere, yes, everywhere, wherever they're scorned.

And last is Roslyn Schulte, from St. Louis: "Do you really want to know what brought me here? I wanted to fly the most exciting airplanes—the small, fast jets they only fly in the military. I was thinking of flying; I was thinking of fun."

I don't meet a single one, in fact, who mentions the greatness of the military profession as such.

Nor do I meet anyone who really seems to take into account the increased risk of death today, given the Iraq War, inherent in the simple fact of choosing a military career.

The response of Brigadier General Johnny Weida, the commandant of cadets at the academy, is all the more clear-cut: very little military background in his family; not the least hint of fascination with war or the Army; his first motivation was not planes but sports. What? He guffaws. Yes, he did say "sports." It was 1974; he was twenty; he had a friend who told him that the Air Force Academy was a great place to develop one's athletic skills. The vocation, of course, followed; it came to him, as it often does to others, at the controls of his first F16s; but in the beginning that was it. In the beginning it was primarily "Integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do"—the motto of the Air Force as well as the values of sport.

I repeat that this may be an exceptional case.

And I'll take care not to judge the broader mentality of the U.S. military (or, above all, of those backup troops who dishonored themselves at Abu Ghraib) on the basis of this academy where they train officers who make it a point of honor not to be "mere" soldiers.

But I should confess that I return to my hotel somewhat confused.

And I decide, this very evening, that from now on I will think twice before allowing myself to talk glibly, like too many of my fellow citizens, about the imperial American military—or, beyond the military, about the imperial calling of the country itself.

"Involuntary Romans," Paul Morand said.

"Incompetent imperialism," added the British historian Niall Ferguson, whose thesis is that the United States doesn't have, and never did have, sufficient military will for its ambitions.

"Incoherent empire," Michael Mann, on the other end of the ideological spectrum, asserts, denouncing the "untidy militarism" of a country that never knew, and knows increasingly less, how to control the territories it has conquered.

And once again, Tocqueville long ago lent us a key to the riddle when he wrote that Americans have even less inclination for war than for politics.

A Gilded Apartheid for the Old?

In Sun City, Arizona, the rule is simple. Implacable. No home without at least one resident above fifty-five. Children and teenagers admitted only to visit. A city of the old. A private city, reserved for retired people, cut off from the rest of the world. In this falsely urban space with perfectly straight, almost deserted streets, where once in a while a few granddads in golf carts pass by, an optimist will see an oasis of prosperity in a society plagued by crisis, a bourgeois utopia dreamed up by some grand developer. In this he'll recognize a strange variation, but a variation all the same, on the good old "pastoralism"—inherited from eighteenth-century English landscape architecture—that played such a large role in the formation of American ideology. He'll perceive in it a reunion—not at all dishonorable in itself—of the spirit of Virgil and that of the Enlightenment. A reunion of back-to-nature dreams, dating from the first American colonists, with the residential progressivism that I discovered in Lakewood, near Los Angeles, which had already shown me what sort of landscape such a mixture can give rise to, and what kind of egalitarian pioneer philosophy it stems from. Emerson's self-reliance on a backdrop of ghettoized old age. Thoreau's Walden in an imaginary version of a fortress under siege. In planned cities of this kind, in citadels emerging in the middle of nowhere (in this case in the desert), perhaps our optimist will even discern a final manifestation, in this twenty-first century, of that pioneering spirit, that capacity to shape oneself "by solemn and mutual consent" into a "body politic," that Tocqueville writes of in the opening pages of Democracy in America (where, quoting Nathaniel Morton, he discusses the creation of Plymouth and the first New England colonies, and describes them as the very essence of the democratic aim).

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