Soldiers and the State: Who Owes What to Whom?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Part of our cover image from January of last year

Last week I published a long note from a young veteran, on his view of the Chickenhawk Nation conundrum. (Original “Tragedy of the American Military” story is here; previous reader reactions, mainly from people with military experience, are in this thread.)

Responses pro and con, starting with one from a civilian law-enforcement officer:

I am a pilot and nascent CFI [Certified Flight Instructor] and also a law-enforcement officer with 25 years of service. Many of my colleagues are military veterans, and they all carry a bit of contempt for those who never served in an all-volunteer military (such as myself).

Police agencies of course come in for a lot of public scrutiny and questioning, and all of us who have worked in the field for longer than 10 minutes hate it. “You don’t trust us,” and “You have no frame of reference” are the two common refrains when lamenting oversight of a government branch with legal fiat to kill someone without prior authorization.

I find it much the same with the military. The difference is, everyone hates the police at least a little, while criticism of the military is largely taboo in most social circles. This is an overcompensation for the abuses Vietnam-era conscripts suffered at the hands of the American public. Over time, adulation for the military has become de rigeur, and criticism, even constructive criticism, is unpatriotic.

I suggest that any military member who declines to entertain the opinions of “dirty, nasty, civilians” get a dose of the response I’ve heard for the last quarter-century: I pay your salary. I bristle every time I hear it, but the fact is martial forces in a representative democracy MUST be under, and accept, civilian oversight and critique.

A lot of civilian critique and opinion is uninformed and inane, and we should remember that portion of the Policeman’s Prayer: “St. Michael, make us polite to bores.” To do otherwise is to invite a fascist fox into the henhouse.


Another reader on the connection between the military and civilian law enforcement:

Your correspondent about the gulf between the military and the rest of us quotes an officer coming out with the phrase “dirty nasty civilians.” It strongly reminds me of what seems too much the prevalent attitude in the San Francisco Police Department, which has been shooting brown and black citizens pretty cavalierly recently. (For example, this— still playing out.) Text messages within the department seem to despise outsiders they are supposed to “protect and serve.”

And I suppose service in the military gives some cops a leg up on being hired.

I have no quarrel with the necessity of civilians taking seriously and thoughtfully what we are doing to those who do serve. But the relationship can very quickly become toxic when “legal use of force” and prejudices are involved.

On the other hand:

I never served myself, but many of my relatives—and now my son-in-law—did and/or do. When I talk to them, I get earfuls about Hillary’s server, embellished with stories of soldiers and marines (no sailors or flyboys in our family) getting into serious trouble for careless—or, more often, stupid—breaches of security. A cousin who served in military intelligence (a colonel) is especially vehement.

So one thing you could say that civilians owe the military is an indictment.


Now, from an officer who served during the Iraq-Afghanistan years:

I think a lot of people—obviously most notable Andrew Bacevich—have done a lot to discuss the tendency of many in the military to place themselves above the civilians: I think this is a real thing and I have decried it—often in uniform and to senior officers.

But that letter [quoted in the previous item] is an extended over the top whine that will give a wrong impression to civilians.

My ears pricked at “It’s rare to go a day in the Army without hearing at least one reference to the oft-quoted 1% statistic.” Really?  'Cause I was on active duty a long time and didn’t hear it but once or twice. It’s not that I don’t think, again, that there is a real problem with military placing themselves above civilians sometimes, I’m just sayin’, that doesn’t happen.  It’s bad.  It is nowhere near that bad.

And the few times I’ve called out seniors for showing disdain for civilians—hell, I did it with a revered senior figure who showed a flicker of that contempt at a PME [Professional Military Education] for junior officers—people have hastened to claim they did no such thing, so the Commander this kid identifies is a bit of a rare bird: Most officers at least know it’s wrong, even if they do it (make your own analogy to racism here).

But once the ears get pricked up, the whole letter collapses. “In my 5 years (and counting) in the National Guard, ROTC, and Army Reserves I’ve run into manifestations of this looking-down-the-nose attitude in many different places, although it seems to be more prevalent within active duty circles than among the weekend warrior types.” OK, let's do the math:

Most folks are in ROTC four years. Maybe we’ll give him three. Then that's two years—but maybe one—in the Guard and Reserve during a time we aren’t deploying many Reservists so, the kid is showing up weekends and bitching about the Active Duty guys, of whom he hasn't been one (I came off of more time AD than he’s served total, and have been a Reservist since).  That’s ... not a real impressive experience base from which to speak.

Do AD guys look down their noses more than they ought to at Reservists?  Well, yeah, some, although not all that much since a lot of the Reservists deployed over the past couple decades. I bet if you're coming into the Guard out of ROTC right now you're going to feel that hard, and it’s pretty understandable to civilian and military alike why that might be.

And ... “UCMJ”?  It is in fact not against UCMJ to be critical of the Army. Yes, a lot of guys worry about promotion and career if they bitch about military leadership and mentality. Didn’t stop me, but maybe I was lucky in my raters. And anyway, I’m probably an unusual case for a lot of reasons.  But if you’re holding back criticizing because you want to get promoted, well, that’s a problem with you, and if you feel that career pressure after only one or two years in the Reserves, then man, you are the weakest-willed career suck-up in the whole damn force.