Chickenhawk Nation, Reader Response No. 3: 'Quiet Gratitude,' or Dangerous Contempt?

"I have nothing but disgust for military apologists such as James Fallows."

Background: My piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here; the "Gary Hart Memo" is here; an extra reading list is here; and here are previous reader responses No. 1 and No. 2. Background on house rules: I will assume that I can quote from any message that comes in via the "email" button above, unless the sender specifies otherwise. I will assume that I should not use the sender's real name or identifying details, unless specified otherwise.

This is today's installment No. 3.

1. The continuing class war. My article talks about how the military has become exotic territory to most Americans; in his article in the same issue, Joseph Epstein talks about the democratizing effects of the draft in the post-Korean War era. A reader who served in that same period, after graduating from Harvard, reinforces what Epstein says.

The analysis about the military services now being a tiny group about which people know nothing is right on. It was utterly different in my day … (I am 77).

One of my Harvard roommates was NROTC, as was one of my closest friends. They did 2 or 3 years of active duty Naval service between 1959 and 1962. A lot of other classmates satisfied military obligation by joining the reserves and doing 6 months active duty and then another 3 or 4 years of going to meetings plus 2 or 3 weeks of active duty training in the summer.

I volunteered to be drafted for 2 years. (Same as Elvis, BTW, who was in Germany when I was.) My Army serial number began with "U.S." (draftee) vs. "RA" (regular army volunteer). In basic I bunked with overweight kids from the Bronx and tough high school grads from South Boston ... It was a "democratic" experience. But of course Vietnam and the reaction to it changed all that and created a system that provided the Cheneys and Bushes of this world with a ready-to-use mercenary force that can be sent anywhere to fight and die with nary a whisper of protest.   

My mixed army of civilian draftees and volunteers appreciated having a few of us college grads down in the ranks. When I arrived at my basic training unit at Fort Hood, the company sergeant called for a show of hands of college graduates ... About half a dozen of us raised our hands. "You're squad leaders," he said. For the next 10 weeks we wore temporary corporal's stripes on our arms ...

2. "People hold their civilian counterparts in contempt, and that's not good":

By way of introduction I am a retired Naval Officer having served [approximately 30 years] in the U.S. Navy and retiring as a Captain. I was a Naval Flight Officer gaining [many thousands of hours of flight experience] in a variety of aircrafts.

The Navy was everything I had hoped it would be in that I joined it to see the world and fly. I got my wish. To say I joined out patriotic fervor was an overstatement—I really didn't. I just wanted to fly and travel and I knew it would give me those opportunities.

That said I am troubled by what I see as the colossal waste of the last 15 years. I am not talking about wasting money—although certainly the country has done that. I am talking about the wasted strategic direction of the country:

First, in its misreading of how to react to 9/11, then in the folly of the invasion of Iraq, which I regard as the biggest foreign policy mistake of the last 30 years. Bye the bye, I am no Johnny-come-lately on being against Iraq, I've been opposed to it since I was first shown the logistics plans for the operation over 11 years ago. It created the current train wreck of long deployments that sailors have to suffer through. We have expended huge efforts on behalf of ungrateful populations overseas, but we do nothing to better ourselves at home. What was the point of serving if it was not to come back to a better country at home?

I agree with your other readers' comments about the disconnect between what military personnel say they believe and what they really need to be advocating. I see it every day at work. People hold their civilian counterparts (not their civilian co-workers, but rather what they see as the unknown "moochers" they have been told exist) in contempt and that's not good.

Most military officers rail conservative talking points about how they hate Obamacare, but have no idea at all how the program really works. But if you try to change military healthcare (which is really 'socialized medicine') watch what happens. If you ever want to see an example of how Fox News shapes opinions for the worse, stick around my office for a while.

If you want proof this is true, go to any of the major military blogs and read their comment sections. Watch how they rise up and viciously attack anyone who opposes the "conventional wisdom". (For example, it is accepted as an article of faith among many that "Obama lost Afghanistan" with his West Point speech. This even though he agreed to his commander's advice about surging more troops.)

One area you did not touch on well, in my opinion, was the social changes that have taken place in the military and how it has been forced to gloss over the costs involved. Yes these changes may have been necessary, but don't kid yourself—mixed gender units are harder to run and a lot of people deeply resent the continued emphasis on diversity. They perceive "preferred customers" being created and that's a problem. It contributes to what you write about in that the public face the military presents is at odds with what is really happening.

This is a complex story and it needs to be told. Andrew Bacevich is right when he says our lack of a program of national service is creating a military that is insulated from the society it serves...

You raised some good points—but I fear like others they won't be discussed.

3. "For the most part, what I have seen is a quiet gratitude." An Army veteran with a view that is more positive than the previous reader's, and than the one in my article:

I have recently retired after 28 years in the Army, this morning actually, and so have had the experience of both the peacetime and wartime service.

I am not a graduate of the military academy nor a commissioned officer so my experience may be somewhat different than your previous posters, but my view of the the American soldier and the perceptions of the public are quite different.

I consider the many soldiers I have known to be among the finest men and women the country has to offer simply because they volunteered to serve their country, most of them joining the military in a time of war. There is nothing remarkable or extraordinary about them. They are in fact very much average Americans. If at times they display acts of courage or heroism it is because they find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

But you should understand that if they put themselves in danger or sacrifice their life it is out of a sense of loyalty to their fellow soldiers, not for the greater good. [JF note: Yes. This is a theme that rings through any history of combat or accounts by combat veterans. I quoted many people on this point in National Defense.] They join the military and go to war out of a sense of duty but a soldier does not die for his country. He may die to protect his brothers and sisters in arms but not for an abstract idea.

As for the public perception I don't think worship is a fair characterization. For the most part what I have seen is a quiet sincere gratitude. I think it is a mistake to equate the spectacle of entertainment promoters for public sentiment. It is true that most civilians have little understanding of what the costs of war are, but I do not think that we should expect them to. I do not think greater exposure to the evils of war would be in any way of benefit to society though I agree that those who have had firsthand experience in war and understand it's consequences should play a larger role in decisions about whether to go to war or not and in policy decisions that concern military readiness...

I oppose compulsory service because being continually on a war footing is neither healthy nor productive for a society. It is better that the military not be on the minds of the public except when they on occasion happen to meet a soldier on the street and they say thank you for your service.

4. No decent person...  On the other hand:

I stopped reading your Atlantic piece when I got to:

"No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do."

I consider myself to be a decent person but I have no respect for or any gratitude for our cowardly, sadistic, murderous men and women in uniform.

Do you have any idea what they have done since WWII? You must. It's incredible. You don't know about the atrocities, the massacres, the civilians slaughtered, countries ruined, demolished. You don't know about the misery, hatred, fear spread by your friends in the military.

[Seth] Moulton got his reward for his four tours of duty much like Kerrey did during and after the Vietnam War. Do you remember the Vietnam War? You must. I don't have to spell it out. And this is what you respect?

Have you followed subsequent wars since? What are you, one of those blame the politicians types or is it blame the public?

I am a Vietnam era draft resister and proud of it. I was charged for Failure to Comply with the Selective Service Act, investigated by the F.B.I. and indicted by the Justice Department. I have nothing but disgust for military apologists such as James Fallows.

Maybe the draftees and enlistees were duped but what could your excuse possibly be. Sick, psychologically sick. And for what: failure after failure, bodies heaped upon bodies, cities, countries lying in smoking ashes—caused by your vaunted military heroes. The heroes in body armor, night goggles, in tanks and armored vehicles, afraid to confront an enemy without air support. Jesus Christ, man, take a look in the mirror; that's you, the killer, the destroyer, the liar, the violent, brutal, merciless face of American military might.


I'm tagging this as part of our American Futures series because these discussions are another way of examining the civic fabric of America, the strains it is undergoing, and our successes or failures in recognizing and coping with them. You can see past installments here or sign up for the newsletter here.