A recent posting by Anson Burlingame, Captain, USN (Ret.) about an honor issue at the U. S. Naval Academy prompts me to discuss it, but in a broader context. Anson’s post, “Another Senior Officer in Trouble” is HERE.
It is reported that the honor code at USNA has been compromised, abetted if not
committed by its current head, Vice Admiral Fowler. Anson’s disgust at this is palpable, and for good reason. It is an article of faith among the professional military that, being subject to mortal combat, they must be committed without reservation to one another’s support. Anything that weakens mutual support and trust threatens both mission and members and is therefore anathema to the profession.
The U. S. service academies are and have long been the principal source of professional, career military officers in this country. Their curricula have a a strong moral component, including a heavy dose of military history and tradition to instill a strong sense of patriotism, duty and commitment. I know this because I am a member of the Naval Academy class of 1959. This training is a good example of a meme, which my Merriam Webster defines as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture”. The military meme requiring mutual trust and support is far older than the United States and probably as old as military service itself, so Anson’s angst is soundly grounded.
Still, the arise of the issue makes me consider another memetic aspect of military service. In World War II the U. S. felt truly threatened after Pearl Harbor and the Nazi occupation of Europe. As a populace we supported the draft and military service was considered the patriotic duty of any able-bodied man. Then, the definition of “war” began to change, first with Korea (fearing the “domino effect”), then the Cold
War and Viet Nam, and finally with the two Iraq wars and Afghanistan. Again, my Merriam Webster (2003), which lists the sense of a word in order of its chronological use (earliest first) defines “war” as “1. a state of usu. open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations.” Subsequent numbered definitions omit the mention of states or nations, thus showing how things have changed.
The immensely unpopular draft was discontinued after Viet Nam in favor of a better-paid professional military, part active-duty and part Reserves. The recent extensive use of the Reserves in extended combat is unprecedented, so far as I know. This is a significant change or evolution, in this country at least, of the military meme. Military service still has a strong patriotic component, but it has gradually been transformed from an obligation of the population as a whole to a career choice made for a mixture of reasons including patriotism, adventure, education, benefits and pay.
However, the basic contract between person and nation for military service in America is unchanged. Our commissioned officers swear an oath not to the President, nor to the Congress, nor (unlike enlisted personnel) to any senior officer, but to the Constitution. This is unique in the world, this military commitment to moral concepts. For more on this, see this Wiki reference.
In other words, our military leadership is committed to the freedoms in that document, concepts which are inseparable from the fundamental notion of tolerating diversity of thought, worship and expression. The population at large, while sympathetic and ostensibly patriotic, no longer feels a part of their military which is now a sub-culture. We are drawing closer to treating our military forces more as mercenaries than as citizen-patriots. The second Iraq War is a prime example of how easily our military can be committed to combat, despite clear historic lessons that should have prevented it. This is most clearly embodied in the Powell Doctrine. Amazingly, Powell himself was duped and his doctrine violated.
The cultural meme that requires honesty and trust among military members may be damaged, as in the Fowler incident, but it is unlikely to change and it is in the nation’s interest that it be maintained to the highest standard. I have every confidence that it will. But, given the changing nature of “war” I wonder if it is not time to re-examine how we as a nation “defend” the country against its enemies. Armies and navies were not intended for police or nation-building functions, but that is how we are using them. As we do, incidents of corruption and moral turpitude are on the rise, not just at the Naval Academy but in the Armed Forces as a whole.
Instead of invading countries and trying to change them into models that look like us, would it not be better to reduce our army and navy to a size appropriate to traditional defense missions and make the pursuit of terrorists the mission of an
internationally-connected police/intelligence force? This would reduce the cost of the War On Terror and reserve our military blood and treasure for traditional purposes. And in conjunction with this, it would be well if our leaders would express a new national resolve that Congress live up to its responsibility to declare war.
I suggest all this because it is clear to me that we are heading into another endless morass just like Viet Nam, and we all know how that turned out.