Politics & Policy

Military-Worship Is Bad for the Military

Sailors and Marines aboard USS Iwo Jima salute during Fleet Week in New York, May 2010. (Reuters photo: Lucas Jackson)
Unthinking deference to the troops and the Pentagon gives the bad apples in the ranks cover to do their worst.

We now know how the Texas church shooter was able to so easily obtain the weapons he used to slaughter 26 innocent men, women, and children in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs: The Air Force made a mistake. In 2012, the shooter was convicted in military court of “beating his wife and breaking his young stepson’s skull.” Let’s put aside for the moment his ridiculously light sentence — twelve months’ confinement and a bad-conduct discharge — and focus on the salient fact that the Air Force failed to transmit information about his crime to the National Criminal Information Center database. If the Air Force had done it’s job, the shooter wouldn’t have passed his background check.

Moreover, it looks like this mistake may not be isolated. As the New York Times reported this morning, “An online repository of active records maintained by the F.B.I.’s Criminal Justice Information Services shows that the Department of Defense had reported just one case of domestic violence as of Dec. 31, 2016.” And the reporting problem may not be confined to domestic violence, either. The Times also notes that all but a “tiny handful” of reported cases from the military were in one category only, dishonorable discharges. There are multiple other criteria that are supposed to prevent a person from passing his background check. Where are those reports?

This is not the only apparent systematic military breakdown. On Sunday night, the Washington Post reported that the Navy’s so-called Fat Leonard corruption investigation had expanded to cover the actions of a stunning 440 active-duty and retired personnel, including 60 admirals. The scandal has been called by some the worst case of corruption in Navy history, and its outlines are simple: In exchange for bribes, booze, fine food, and prostitutes, Navy officers allowed Leonard Glenn “Fat Leonard” Francis to overcharge the Navy by $35 million when ships docked at his ports, and allegedly gave him access to classified information regarding ship and submarine movements. As one retired officer told the Post, “At one time he had infiltrated the entire leadership line. The KGB could not have done what he did.”

And let’s not forget the Navy’s probe into the deadly collisions at sea involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain. The results were outlined last Wednesday, and the picture it paints is devastating. A total of 17 sailors died as a result of a cascade of human errors that are collectively difficult to believe.

I’m a former major in the Army, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and I believe the decision to serve my country in uniform is among the best one’s of my life. But I’ve got a confession to make:

I’m getting very worried about our nation’s military-worship.

As I’ve told anyone who asks, the men I served with in Iraq are extraordinary people. Their courage would take your breath away. Our military is full of such heroes, and they’re worth every bit of honor and respect our nation can provide. But not everyone in the military is a hero. The mere act of donning a uniform does not make you any better than any other American. Though I’ve seen heroism in the military, I’ve also seen craven corruption, cynical exploitation of the public, and grotesque incompetence. If there is an iron law of human nature it’s this: Absent accountability and oversight, all human institutions grow increasingly corrupt and incompetent.

Our more corrupt service members know how they’re viewed and exploit that goodwill relentlessly.

Here is my concern. Our growing civil/military divide often means that too many Americans by default view members of the military with a degree of deference, sometimes even awe, that these service members haven’t always earned. They view members of the military as inherently more honorable and more courageous than civilians. And, believe me, our more corrupt service members know how they’re viewed and exploit that goodwill relentlessly.

When you combine this awe with ignorance, it’s easy to see how military scandals can fester and grow until they turn into something — like ship collisions or mass murders in Texas — too terrible to ignore. The awe grants the military deference while the ignorance means that vital functions like military justice or naval maneuvers are mysterious and opaque not just to members of the public but to the overwhelming majority of journalists and politicians. Thus, we don’t understand what we should understand, and we trust when we shouldn’t trust.

Our biases are subtle and often unconscious, but very real. Imagine if we discovered in the last seven days that hundreds of FBI agents were under investigation for corruption and that a series of human errors at the Department of Justice had cost the lives of dozens of innocent Americans. We would be speaking right now of a crisis of confidence in the DOJ. I know the military operates in a higher-risk environment, so the comparison is not entirely fair, but I daresay that this week’s stories won’t make a dent in public confidence in the Department of Defense.

Why? I think two powerful forces are in play — and only one of them is good. First, we know and appreciate that defending our nation is a voluntary act, and respecting those who serve helps ensure that other men and women will be willing to step up and enlist while also atoning for some of the worst sins of the Vietnam era. The terrible treatment of Vietnam veterans lingers in our national memory, and it’s to our country’s credit that we’ve determined not to repeat that shameful past.

At the same time, however, I fear that too many citizens, politicians, and pundits have resorted to military-worship as a form of patriotism on the cheap. They didn’t serve themselves, but by golly no one can love the troops more than they do. No one’s going to salute the flag with more enthusiasm, cheer the vet-of-the-week at a football game with more vigor, or outbid them in lavishing love and resources on men and women in uniform.

It’s far more patriotic, of course, to hold every branch of government and every government employee accountable to the law, the Constitution, and their responsibilities than it is to revere any branch or person. Respect — and especially reverence — is earned, not given freely. There are absolutely members of the military who are not respectable people. They do not do respectable things, and thus they do not deserve our respect.

This week should serve as a sobering reminder that loving the troops and supporting the military means holding both accountable. It means withholding deference and treating the DOD like every other government bureaucracy and human institution. Noble people aren’t afraid of accountability. Honorable soldiers don’t fear scrutiny. But when you worship the military, you hurt the military.


Taking the Defense Industry Seriously

Military Fitness Is a Military Decision

Yes, It’s Time to Increase Defense Spending

— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, an attorney, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.


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