Thursday, May 14, 2009

Are Military Officers Romantic?

In my experiences during my time on the Joint Staff and since, I have been frequently struck with how sensitive, sentimental, and, dare I say it, sweet, members of modern militaries are. Yes, these officers [almost all of my interactions have been with officers and not enlisted men and women] who are trained to lead their soldiers into battle--to kill and perhaps to be killed seem to be softies!

First, during my time in the Pentagon, I saw a great number of ceremonies and ate a great deal of cake (one of the key reasons my year had the same impact as freshman year in college--about 15 pounds--notice the guinea pig cheeks in the picture) celebrating a variety of events, but the essence of each was the showering of affection on those who had achieved and those who were moving on to other assignments. One can be cynical and suggest the darker sources of these traditions, but the reality was lots of heartfelt appreciation. When someone asked on the political science job rumors blog about whether the granting of tenure is accompanied by ceremonies, I snorted.

Second, recently, I have contacted my old partner on the Bosnia Desk of the Joint Staff to ask for his help for my upcoming trip to Europe since he is a defense attache in one of the countries I am visiting. His response, getting his aides to help an "old and dear friend," will make the trip quite successful and far easier than I have a right to expect.

Third, today, I interviewed a Canadian general about his experiences in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and he emphasized, like others but perhaps more clearly, that the military is in the people business. He was referring not to the killing of people, but of relationships--that officers need to build relationships with officers from other countries, with those back home, with civilians in the field, etc. The project I am researching focuses on how countries control their forces engaged in multilateral military operations, and the stress has very much been on the points of tension among allies about who is willing to do what on the ground. This conversation, like others, emphasized how building relationships among commanders in theatre can mitigate some of the challenges presented by domestic politics on the home front.

What all three of these experiences share is that these folks who put others and themselves in harm's way have taken that obligations seriously and understand that equipment and ideas (ideologies, tactics, strategies) do not function too well if people do not trust either other. Band of Brothers, indeed! Of course, we should not idealize these guys too much. There are plenty of socially-unskilled, reckless, nasty, short-sighted, alienating officers out there as well (Tommy Franks, I am talking about you). I met a few while working on the Joint Staff*--although these guys happened (coincidentally or not) to be based elsewhere.

Of course, the resulting emotions from this realization are shame and embarassment. We academics with our small stakes and safe positions are quite able to brutalize each other due to rivalry, jealousy, incompetence, a total lack of self- and other-awarness, and/or arrogance (just to start the list). Of course, I could just be remembering the stuff that sticks out in my year there and in my life here and might be imposing more consistency and coherence to both experiences.

* During my year on the Joint Staff, it was constantly repeated that the folks who worked there were the best the US military had to offer. And while we occasionally argued about all things political, I think I would have to agree. Of course, they were not only affectionate, but also highly skilled in giving people friendly abuse. I fit in, as I could take their @#$# and dish it back out. Glad my smart-ass skills were up to the task.

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