Sunday, August 27, 2017

Lionizing the US Armed Forces

A big theme of the past week has been: how wonderful the US military is, compared to civilian society.  This was not just Trump's strange intro to his Afghanistan speech, but also SecDef Mattis's words to his troops.
 “You’re a great example for our country right now and it’s got problems,” said Mattis. “You know it and I know it. It’s got problems we don’t have in the military. And you just hold the line, my fine soldiers, and sailors and airmen and Marines. Just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”

The idea is that the civilians are a mess, lacking integrity and honor while the armed forces are better.  Let me be a good military briefer and put my bottom line up front [BLUF]: NOT GOOD.

The idea that the military is morally superior to the civilians is not new, but having both the President and, perhaps more importantly, the SecDef say it and not get too much pushback?  This is bad.  It is not coup-causing bad, but it is bad nonetheless.  Civilian society is supposed to be a cacophony of different views and standards--isn't this part of the freedom that the armed forces are supposed to be protecting?  The civilian world is not supposed to be a strict hierarchy with standards imposed from on high with strict obedience.  The military world and the civilian world are very different, and they are supposed to be very different.  Oh, and one is not superior to the other.  Sure, military folks will want to suggest that their world is better, but their world is only appropriate for their community, their profession.

Of course, it is not just about freedom vs authority, but the notion that the civilian world is immoral and lacking honor.  Um, has anyone checked out the record of bad things in the armed forces?  Sexual assault, slow to deal with suicide, the presence of more than a few white supremacists, corruption (folks involved in procurement making decisions based on who will employ them when they retire), relatively weak accountability for the senior officers for failures (the firing of an admiral for the ship collisions is a rare and late example of some accountability), etc.  The whole "support our troops" thing has allowed us to be blind to the imperfections of those in uniform.

The point here is not to trash the armed forces--they do incredibly hard jobs under immense pressure.  And now their commander-in-chief is a temperamental brat with a profound ignorance for pretty much everything but having a child's admiration for folks in uniform.  So, they are in a hard spot.  They may be asked to violate domestic and international law (see Trump's comments on rules of engagement), and it will be interesting to see what they do.  Anyhow, the point is that there are two separate worlds--civilian and military--but one is not inherently better than the other.  Many civilians have some sense of honor even if it is not sketched out in a code.  Some military members do engage in awful behavior even as the majority are honorable:  #Notallcivilians and #notallmilitaryfolks and all that.

I wish that Mattis wouldn't play up the notion that the military is better, less corrupt, less problematic than the divisive civilians.  It is his job to manage US civilian-military relations, and speeches like this are not helpful.  It would have been unfortunate if these words were uttered by a serving general, but they are far more problematic when uttered by the SecDef.

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