I’ve spent a lot of time of late with military people, and I am reminded of Tocqueville’s observation that the best Americans generally do not go into politics or the academy; they go into business or the law or religion, and, in times of war, the armed forces.
Military people are not happy with the media or with the American public. Many of them say, I think quite accurately, that most Americans view them — the soldiers — as an annoyance. The people just want this Iraq thing to go away, they are tired of it, they are depressed by it, and they have tuned it out. Not that this undermines morale on the battlefield, mind you. Our fighters have a much better appreciation of the stakes than most of the scribblers and chatters; they have seen the terrorists at work, they know that if we fail in the Middle East, terrorism will get an enormous boost. They know that they, or their younger siblings, will have to fight again, closer to home or down home. So they do everything they are permitted to do on today’s battlefields.
I think the most impressive thing about this generation of fighters is their humanity, a point made to me by a senior official who has fought in many wars, and will soon retire. He points to the nature of the military community, which in many ways is the closest thing we’ve got to a classless society. If there is any group of Americans who truly believe in “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” it’s our soldiers. The officer corps brings some of our most talented and most fortunate sons and daughters into intimate contact with their less fortunate cohorts. Officers from wealthy families and elite universities live alongside kids from farms, bayous, and backwoods, and the sons and daughters of the rich and famous sleep, work, fight, and die with the children of the ghettos, slums and unemployed. It isn’t always that way, to be sure; the underclass kids fight their way to high rank, and some of the rich and famous leave the Ivy League and enlist, but the basic point remains: There’s little room for snobbery based on who’s your daddy, or where’d you go to school.
It works quite well, from all accounts. Our officers — this is holy writ for the Marines, but it is pretty much canonical in the other services as well — lead from the front. And the basic rule of the community of warriors is that you don’t want to let down the guy next to you. Everyone knows that, and so everyone works as hard as he can, not only to make himself worthy, but to be damn sure the guy next to him is up to the challenge. You don’t want the guy next to you to come back to base and expose your failures, and you sure as hell don’t want him to fail when you need him to save you.
So a community is created, and it’s a caring meritocracy far more than you’d imagine, certainly far more than I’d imagined before our kids headed off for Afghanistan and Iraq and we started to spend time with people in uniform, or with the parents of people in uniform. It’s totally counterintuitive, but I think it’s largely true. And it turns my stomach when the no-nothings start calling them “mercenaries,” as if they were in it for the money, and as if they were dehumanized killing machines.
Somewhere on the net I read an exchange between Milton Friedman and some general. They were arguing about the value of a volunteer Army, rather than the draft, which existed at the time. The general said he didn’t want an army of mercenaries, and Friedman hit the roof. He pointed out that, on that line of reasoning, we bought our meat from mercenary butchers, went for treatment to mercenary doctors, and so forth. There’s a big difference between volunteers and mercenaries. Our fighters are where they are because, by and large, they believe in something bigger than themselves, they have learned that you can live in a community where virtue does not equal narcissism, and they know that they are far more than a nuisance. They’re in it for all of us, and if they lose it’s going to be bad for all of us.
Machiavelli, the smartest of all of us, knew that true virtue is military virtue, because it enables virtuous people to work for the common good instead of self-indulgence.
And that is why I have a sneaking suspicion that we are going to hear a lot from this generation of fighters.