Tuesday, August 23, 2011
You would think it a good thing. The American military has regained the respect and admiration of a grateful people.
You might suspect that some of the respect might not be entirely sincere. Political expediency makes for strange loyalties.
Still, you would think that everyone would be cheering. The military represents a highly effective organization, one that represents the best of our nation. Were we to more closely embody the values that animate the military, we would surely be better off.
If truth, most people are happy at this eventuality.
With sophisticated intellectuals, writers like William Deresiewicz, such is not the case. Deresiewicz considers it to be mildly alarming that the nation is embracing martial values uncritically. To him this is a sign that the nation has lost its way, and is turning its back on the values that he seems to hold sacred.
Thus, he feels that he must offer a critique of the current respect for the military.
This is not the first time that he has done as much. This time he is doing it in the New York Times by critiquing the importance that we grant to the “uniform.”
In the post World War II period, returning veterans applied the values that they learned in military service to the task of building America.
They knew how to build and work in large organizations. They embraced a culture where they know how to dress and knew to make things run well.
The great sartorial symbol of their ethos was the uniform. Or its civilian equivalent, the business suit.
As everyone knows masculine dress has always been derived from the military uniform.
Thus, if you want to diminish and demean this ethos, you do well to start by attacking the uniform.
During the Vietnam era the counterculture attacked the American military and its culture. It declared martial values to be oppressive and repressive> It hated the rigid conformity implied in the notion of wearing a uniform.
I take it that Deresiewicz considers himself and is taken to be a friend of the military. The Times tells us that an essay of his is taught at West Point. Yet, he is a critic of America’s new found respect for the military, and especially of what he calls its “sentimental” attachment to the uniform.
He opens his essay with a complaint, and a distortion: “No symbol is more sacred in American life right now than the military uniform. The cross is divisive; the flag has been put to partisan struggle. But the uniform commands nearly automatic and universal reverence. In Congress as on television, generals are treated with awed respect, service members spoken of as if they were saints. Liberals are especially careful to make the right noises: obeisance to the uniform having become the shibboleth of patriotism, as anti-Communism used to be. Across the political spectrum, throughout the media, in private and public life, the pieties and ritual declarations are second nature now: ’warriors,’ ‘heroes,’ ‘mission‘; ‘our young men and women in uniform,’ ‘our brave young men and women,’ ‘our finest young people.’ So common has this kind of language become, we scarcely notice it anymore.”
Deresiewicz is a good writer and an intelligent man. Thus, one needs to read him carefully.
In this passage he is suggesting that there is something wrong with respecting the military. More importantly, he is speaking of the military as though it were a quasi-religious cult.
If he were saying that some of our admiration and respect for the military is an effort to make amends for the appalling attitude of the anti-Vietnam protesters, one would have to concur.
If he were saying that liberals who praise the military today are not very sincere, then I for one would concur.
Unfortunately, that is not what he is doing.
He himself offers respect, but his gesture is ultimately empty: “We owe them respect and gratitude — even if we think the wars they’re asked to fight are often wrong.”
Often wrong? Who’s to say? And what kind of respect are you offering to quasi-religious cult that has been fighting wars that are “often wrong.”
How can you respect soldiers when their mission is not worth fighting for?
And a country that “often” sends its military to fight the wrong wars cannot be worth fighting for either. Can it?
Why would respect soldiers who allow themselves to be duped into fighting the wars that are “often wrong?”
Deresiewicz has paid lip service to respecting the military, while damning it with faint praise.
Recently, many people have been thinking that it is a good idea for schoolchildren to wear uniforms. Studies have suggested that wearing uniforms contributes to classroom discipline and decorum.
Yet, Deresiewicz is disturbed at “the new cult of the uniform.”
Why so? He does not quite say what would happen in a culture that did not respect uniforms, but we already know from past experience.
When our nation disrespected the military he produced a culture of creativity and spontaneity, a culture that valued sloth over work, and they promoted free, open, self-indulgent expression.
If you are among those who respect the military, Deresiewicz believes that you are the victim of “emotional blackmail.” This was visited on you during the Iraq War.
In his words: “…supporting the troops, we were given to understand, meant that you had to support the war. In fact, that’s all it seemed to mean. The ploy was a bait and switch, an act of emotional blackmail. If you opposed the war or questioned the way it was conducted, you undermined our troops.”
If you accept that you were blackmailed into respecting the military, doesn’t that make you more apt to question your respect? What if the only way to escape from this “emotional blackmail” is to cease to respect the military? Isn’t that where this is headed?
Deresiewicz sees this cult to the uniform as a bad thing, a social symptom. So he proposes to cure it by explaining where it comes from. In his view, our respect for the military derives from the fact that the nation has not had a full scale mobilization for war.
In his words: “The greater the sacrifice that has fallen on one small group of people, the members of the military and their families, the more we have gone from supporting our troops to putting them on a pedestal. In the Second World War, everybody fought. Soldiers were not remote figures to most of us; they were us. Now, instead of sharing the burden, we sentimentalize it. It’s a lot easier to idealize the people who are fighting than it is to send your kid to join them. This is also a form of service, I suppose: lip service.”
Why does this necessarily mean that we have sentimentalized the burden? Is respect equivalent to idealizing, putting people on a pedestal?
If Deresiewicz were trying to analyze the attitude of today’s liberals toward the military, he would be making some sense. Perhaps the people he knows are paying lip service to respecting the troops, because they are guilt-ridden over their behavior during the Vietnam War. In truth, many liberals are so viscerally anti-military that their children would never even imagine joining it. Does that contribute to their false displays of respect for the military? Perhaps it does.
Unfortunately, Deresiewicz is not talking about his intellectual friends. He sees his friends as typical of all Americans.
He says that we recovered our respect for the military after 9/11. And he tries to explain it as a lame attempt to assert masculine virtues.
In his words: “The cult of the uniform also bespeaks a wounded empire’s need to reassert its masculinity in the wake of 9/11.” He then adds that it represents: “desperate machismo.”
In case you did not notice, Deresiewicz is trying to lead us to see this all through the lens of the therapy culture.
He expresses no real sense that it might be a good thing to fight back when a foreign power attacks your homeland and destroys a major portion of your major city.
He almost makes post 9/11 military action an overcompensation for a masculinity deficiency. Presumably, those who refuse to fight and who hate wars are so virile that they do not need to fight.
In this mind warp weakness and timidity become signs of enhanced virility. Go figure.
Deresiewicz does not see it in military terms or in geopolitical terms or in foreign policy terms. He sees it all in terms of therapy. Or better, in terms of what therapists call acting out: “The war in Iraq, that catharsis of violence, expressed the same emotional dynamic. We’d been hit in the head with a rock; like a neighborhood bully, we grabbed the first person we could get our hands on and beat him senseless.”
Fouad Ajami, a far more reliable source on these questions, has explained, painstakingly, that Saddam Hussein was not just a neighborhood bully. He was a state sponsor of terrorism in the part of the world that served as the cultural epicenter of Islamic terrorism.
Draining the swamp that had produced al Qaeda did not just mean attacking the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. It meant taking the war to the Arab Middle East.
Things have not gone entirely according to plan, and Deresiewicz does not feel that the civilian leaders and the generals have not been sufficiently criticized: “And yet the cult of the uniform has immunized them from blame, and inoculates the rest of us from thought.”
Actually, the strategic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan led the civilian and military leaders to change their tactics. As the war kept going badly, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and their generals were subjected to withering criticism. To say otherwise is fatuous.
Importantly, Deresiewicz is not interested in effective military action. He is not concerned with winning wars. He wants to restore American guilt, the guilt that allowed America to repudiate its military and to turn away from martial values.
So, he says that he wants to know how many “terrible crimes” our soldiers have committed. We have read about some of them, but he is convinced that there are more. And he is convinced that many of these crimes have been covered up.
Here he enters the realm of slander and character assassination. Lacking enough evidence to indict the military, he relies on suggestion and insinuation.
Finally, he does his best to diminish the value of heroism. He argues that the word “hero” has been so overused that it has ceased to be meaningful.
Does it feel meaningful to say that the firefighters who ran into the burning towers to try to rescue people were heroic? Does it make sense to you that the soldiers who have been fighting and winning the war in Iraq might be considered to be heroes?
He is right to say that soldiers do not use the term very often: “The irony is that our soldiers are the last people who are likely to call themselves heroes and are apparently very uncomfortable with this kind of talk. The military understands itself as a group endeavor.”
Surely, they are much happier to be considered heroes and to be thanked and respected for their service than they were to be spat on, as the anti-war movement did during Vietnam.
Deresiewicz continues: “It was wrong to demonize our service members in Vietnam; to canonize them now is wrong as well. Both distortions make us forget that what they are are human beings.”
It is also wrong to draw an equivalence between excessive contempt and excessive respect… even assuming that the respect is excessive.
Again, no one is canonizing our soldiers. No one is elevating them to the rank of sainthood. Deresiewicz is wrong to keep playing this religious metaphor, as though the military is a quasi-religious cult.
And he is also wrong, to say that they are really just “human beings.”
Let’s be careful here. While it is true that soldiers are human beings, so are cowards who refuse to fight and so are critics who try to diminish their achievements. Using this term levels them, and strips them of the respect they have earned.
Our soldiers are much more than human beings. They are Americans; they belong to a nation; they are members of a proud and respected organization; they fight and die for our country.
To say that they are mere mortals is to diminish them with an empty platitude.
Deresiewicz seems happy to diminish heroic enterprise: “Heroism belongs to the realm of fantasy — the comic book, the action movie — or to delimited and often artificial spheres of action, like space exploration or sports.”
Again, this is therapy-speak. It implies that those who see things realistically have put aside notions like heroism and no longer worship the cult of the military uniform.
Unfortunately, space exploration is not artificial. Neither are sports. Both are real games. Those who excel at sports are not fantasy figures; they are real players, who do not live their lives as though they are living in a psychodrama.
Heroes excel; they save lives and they win wars. They do not perform miracles, they are not aspiring martyrs. But they sacrifice their comfort and sometimes their lives for their countries.
Heroism signifies exceptional achievement, achievement that is not gained by criticizing and demeaning the accomplishments of others.
We need heroes, as we need great men and women, because we need to have something to emulate, something to aspire to.
After diminishing heroism, Deresiewicz becomes intellectually incoherent by offering the following complaint.
In his words: “We need leaders, who marshal us to the muddle. We need role models, who show us how to deal with it. But what we really need are citizens, who refuse to infantilize themselves with talk of heroes and put their shoulders to the public wheel instead.”
Of course, an editor ought to have spared us the term: "marshal us to the muddle." Be that as it may, the qualities Deresiewicz is touting come from a genuine respect for the military, for the uniform, for the values that the military embodies.
They do not arise by magic from criticism of the military, from efforts to make it into a sacred cult that is hiding terrible crimes. They do not come from the guilt that Deresiewicz is trafficking.
I am genuinely amazed that an essay be Deresiewicz is being taught at West Point. Why would the military find value in the work of someone who does not respect it? On another day I will offer some comments on his essay: “Solitude and Leadership.”
Posted by Stuart Schneiderman at 10:11 AM