The Civil-Military Divide: How Deeply Run the Consequences?

I wasn’t impressed with Richard Cohen’s take on Wikileaks, but his latest OpEd is right on:

I found the Army to be no better and no worse than other large institutions. Some of its leaders were fools, and some soldiers were thieves, and everyone wasted money like there was no tomorrow. This is the truth and everyone once knew it.

Cohen isn’t arguing that the military has no redeeming qualities (though, as the above quote makes clear, it’s kind of ridiculous to speak about “the military” as a monolithic entity in terms good or bad).

I’ve been trying to make a similar point for years: Servicemembers are mostly just guys who loved military service until the first couple weeks of boot camp, when most of them realized how naive they had been about the lifestyle.  By the end of their first year, most Marines I knew couldn’t say enough about how much they looked forward to getting out and never looking back.  The braggadocio and chest-thumping is, for most, a show put on when they return from combat and feel obliged to whip up some narrative about freedom and terrorists something something for the folks back home.  Which is not to say that they later regret joining.

Why does it matter? Well, it’s kind of silly to worship people for volunteering for their country when it’s a task they really didn’t want to be doing all along.  More importantly, when we understand that servicemembers are, by and large, just guys doing a job they are required by contract to perform, it’s easier to deal with US military conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Shooting first and asking questions later makes a lot more sense when we can let go of the childish notion that Marines and soldiers are natural humanitarians hell-bent on saving the less fortunate of the world.

It’s not about good and evil; it’s about people doing what they naturally do in certain circumstances.  Partially, anyway.  There are institutional biases (e.g., insular thinking) that incentivize certain harmful behavior. The motivations underlying military conduct are dynamic and complex.  Blanket adulation for people engaged in the institutional use of force means denying the existence of problems rather than solving them (and many are solvable).  I hope that hearing this from a columnist of Cohen’s stature makes it easier for Americans to swallow.

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