Friday, May 20, 2005

Standing in the breach

Long time no blog... Blame my sister and her fiance, whose impending nuptials are taking a good chunk of my free time. I don't grudge them a minute - but it does get in the way of my timeliness!

The recent Newsweek faux pas (if that isn't too innocuous a term for a mistake resulting in seventeen or so deaths and hundreds of injuries) has revived the languishing Abu Ghraib fiasco and a general sense, in the media, of distrust for the American military. I'm late to the table, but it's time for me to say my say on those who stand in the breach for us.

The U.S. military is heir to the British, of course. To understand all the implications of this inheritance is far beyond me, but some things are obvious: the British military was and is synonymous with honor and duty. That's not to say there haven't been wartime atrocities committed by the British, or by Americans; but these two and their "relatives," at any rate, explicitly rejected that earlier, longstanding military inheritance of rape and spoils as the proper right of the victor. The world has followed suit, at least publicly - but we can see the vestiges of prior custom among UN peacekeepers, for instance.

In America, the military still makes men - and women, these days. Rude, haphazard teenagers undergo a scant few weeks of basic training and begin to metamorphose, if they make it through; they stand straight, their clothes and shoes and hair and bodies are clean and neat, they know when to look someone in the eye and when to keep eyes front, and they begin to learn about esprit. They begin to learn that they are responsible not only for themselves but for the well-being of their entire unit, and that their unit is responsible for completing its mission, on which may ride the fate of many more civilians who do not or cannot wear the uniform. They learn appropriate pride - not vanity but a knowledge of their own worth and the worth of the guy next to them and, as well, the worth of the ones who would be undefended if not for them. Some military people may secretly - or not so secretly - look down on civilians, but at the same time they realize that the right to live as you wish, the essence of American civilianhood, is unutterably precious and worth fighting for.

Another inheritance: in old Britain, the military was a conduit between classes. More surely than through education, assassination, religious vocation, or simple deceit, a patient man could improve his family's lot by joining the Navy. Perhaps he himself might never achieve the officer corps, but his son could have that chance. And an officer could interact socially with almost anyone.

In the United States, the military was also a conduit from social ignominy "upward." More: it was, and still is in some areas, an absolutely unparallelled conduit from the generational poverty and despair suffered by some Americans of color, to something much better: the knowledge and the power of self-determination. There's nothing like knowing you are the primary author of your destiny to raise you from perceived victimhood to self-reliance, and many, many Americans of all ethnicities, including the white underclass that gets no play in popular media, have first experienced that knowledge when they joined up, made it through boot, sewed on the first stripes they earned, and passed in review surrounded by their new family. Not every member of the military becomes an automatic success, either in the military itself or later in the civilian world - but if the world into which you were born took it as given that you'd die in the bed you were born in, no better off than the squalling baby you once were, the military offers a stunning alternative that rests almost entirely on your own commitment to it.

Unfortunately it's not available to everyone. Because the mission of the military isn't to be a social program but rather is a serious obligation of government recognized even by libertarians, the disabled can't participate in it, at least not so far. Possibly as we are able to automate more and more of the work of war, some forms of physical disability in some areas may become irrelevant. Mental disability never will: there's no such thing as cannon fodder in America's infantry.

Aside from the almost complete absence of serious illness and disability (both are probably less common among military dependents than in the general population, I'd wager, because at least one parent has passed stringent physical and mental testing - and anyone who doesn't think that boot camp constitutes mental testing has never seen boot camp), the military world is a microcosm of society, with the tails of the curve cut off. There are good people and bad people, but not many saints or sociopaths. There are very smart people and not-so-smart people, but few supergeniuses (they're too nonconformist to cope with the conformity a military structure requires) and no clearly developmentally disabled people. Some are fundamentalist in their faiths; some are lukewarm; some are outright atheists. Crimes are committed, some types perhaps in greater proportion than in the civilian community; I'm preaching rather than reporting research here, but intuitively it seems obvious that that can happen when you select for wolves and reject dogs: the base level of aggression is higher in the military than in the civvie world as a whole, though not higher than in some civilian sectors (teamsters, police officers, any inner city). So there's domestic violence, assault, rape, murder - but these violent crimes are not as common as you might think, because of the self-discipline that is the underlayment of all military members' lives, not to mention the swift and sure judgment that's waiting for anyone who's caught. Neither is a guarantee of self-control, but both are strong deterrents.

Military service tends to run in families. I myself am a barren twig in this regard: my father was career military, but I decided not to join up because I was uncertain about whether I too would be willing to go career. In my seventeen-year-old mind, I was half afraid of how different military life might be from military dependence, and half mindful of the un-recouped cost of my training if I decided not to reup after my six post-training years. All right, maybe I was more than half afraid... Regardless, I turned down my best chance to follow in my dad's footsteps, and it's about the closest thing I have to a regret now. I can't truly regret it, because a different life after high school would have meant, well, a different life after high school, basically - and I love my husband and my kids and wouldn't trade them for anything. But I have a wide patriotic streak that I've never put sufficiently on display because of that decision half my life ago. And I hate being labelled a chickenhawk, because the stinging truth of it is that the chance to serve my country was in a letter in my hand and I passed it by. If I had had a crystal ball -

Futile speculation. I can't imagine not having my kids, not being married to the non-military guy I chose.

Moving on. American journalism seems to run, if not in families, then in classes - or at least the process of becoming a journalist seems to have predictable and homogeneous results, one of which seems to me to be passive voice-abuse. But more to the point, journalists who succeed in garnering a place in a major media organization seem to start from the premise that the American military is tantamount to the Roman military: killing for salt, looting for profit, raping for fun, torturing out of ignorant spite. It's frankly weird. It's like comparing a brand-new laptop to an abacus: they share one function - arithmetic, or war; and one physical characteristic - being rectangular, or being human. Yet the journalistic trade seems not to understand the distinction.

THe Hugh Hewitt interview with Terry Moran of ABC speaks to this strangeness. As Moran himself says, "There is, Hugh, I agree with you, a deep anti-military bias in the media. One that begins from the premise that the military must be lying, and that American projection of power around the world must be wrong. I think that that is a hangover from Vietnam, and I think it's very dangerous." That's a telling admission, I think.

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