The Corner

Marx’s Military?

Last summer I wrote the following in the G-File:

In case you didn’t know, trolling is one of those Internet words the kids today use. The Urban Dictionary has a series of entirely serviceable definitions of the term. But the gist of it boils down to pretending to be serious while saying something outrageous in an effort to really piss people off for the sake of pissing people off.

I will be the first to confess that we at the Goldberg File are not strangers to the practice because, well, it’s fun. As my favorite Russian proverb goes, “If you see a Bulgarian in the street, beat him. He will know why.”

More relevant, journalism is a lot like Sara Lee’s Home Style Troll Pie (“Now with at least 10 percent real troll!”), the troll is simply baked in. That’s because trolling is often in the eye of the beholder. One man’s trollery is another man’s speaking truth to power. Writers are supposed to be provocative. Good writing often involves stating truths boldly and clearly. (For instance: Harry Reid smells vaguely like stale corn chips, failure, and cat urine; on this there can be no debate.) A dedicated Communist or Nazi who reads Orwell probably won’t think Orwell is a profound witness to evil, he’ll think Orwell should live under a bridge. The moment we try to cut through the white noise of life and synthesize a simple truth, we invariably generalize. And any generalization will seem unfair to the exceptions who prove the rule. (This is one reason why writing about issues like race and gender are so perilous. No matter how true the generalization, the exceptions must be treated like the rule. More on that in a bit.)

It came to mind after reading this piece by Jacob Siegel at the Daily Beast because, frankly, I can’t quite tell how serious he is. It’s titled ”Troops of the Uniform Unite! The Military Is a Socialist Paradise!” One hint that he might have internalized the logic of trolling without fully realizing it is that he essentially keeps grinning about the supposed fact that this assertion will shock conservatives. As it says in the subhead, “It may come as an unwelcome surprise to conservatives, but America’s military has one of the only working models of collective living and social welfare the country has ever known.” He begins the article:

Every day before dawn, brave men and women of different races and backgrounds rise as one, united by a common cause. They march together in formation, kept in step by their voices joined in song. These workers leave their communal housing arrangements and go toil together “in the field.” While they are out doing their day’s labor, their young are cared for in subsidized childcare programs. If they hurt themselves on the job, they can count on universal health care. Right under your nose, on the fenced-in bases you drive past on your way to work or see on the TV news, a successful experiment in collectivization has been going on for years.

And so on. There are plenty of “to be sure” clauses and clarifications where he notes that his argument isn’t actually, you know, very good. There’s even this pas de deux of both trollery and thesis-negation: “No one will be more infuriated by the comparison to socialism than the conservative-leaning members of the military. And there are, of course, innumerable and essential ways in which the military isn’t socialist at all.” Hey, here’s a thought, maybe conservative-leaning members of the military will be infuriated not so much by aptness of the comparison but by the fact that there are “innumerable and essential ways in which the military isn’t socialist at all.”

Anyway, what I find interesting about the piece — again, assuming there’s any good faith to it — is what he leaves out.

For starters, in this socialist paradise, members forfeit many of their constitutional rights. Or to put it more accurately, their rights are curbed and limited in ways they are not for civilians. They don’t have the same rights of speech, assembly, movement etc. Siegel is right that the military is one of the most meritocratic institutions in American life and it has often been ahead of the curve on many issues, such as desegregation. But it also discriminates — understandably — against the disabled and the elderly. You can’t sign up to be a frontline soldier or a Marine if you can’t pass certain physical or age requirements. And, for the time being at least, women still have to meet certain physical requirements for certain jobs.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that you also have to follow orders from your superiors, mostly without question. That alone, one would think, would do away with the whole “paradise” part of the equation. Maybe I’m wrong, but I didn’t get the sense that the urine-recycling Bolsheviks of the Occupy Wall Street crowd were yearning for the right to be told to go on a ten-hour hike in the rain “before dawn.” Indeed, the whole concept of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” runs counter to the whole military ethos. 

So, forget the paradise part. Is the military socialist? Well, sure in the sense that it is collectivist (a term Siegel seems to use interchangeably with socialist). Siegel writes: “Like all socialist paradises, the military has been responsible for its share of bloodshed, but it has developed one of the only working models of collective living and social welfare that this country has ever known.”

I think that’s basically true. But Siegel seems to be missing the point. The reason the military works as a collectivist enterprise has absolutely nothing to do with socialism in the economic sense (though, it should be noted that socialism wasn’t always a narrowly economic project). We don’t create a military to even out the Gini coefficient. We create militaries to protect the nation and preserve freedom — the very freedom we often deny to members of the military itself.  This mission, literally this esprit de corps, is why the military works. 

But the very nature of a military’s purpose disqualifies it as a model for a free society. In short Siegel is making a fundamental category error. As long time readers know, this is a particular bugaboo of mine. The tradition of liberals invoking the military as a model for civilian life has a very old pedigree, going back most famously to William James’s “The Moral Equivalents of War” and the writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes. And it is alive and well in our current president. Personally, I find the whole idea repugnant. 

I have no idea if Siegel knows anything about this history, or if he much cares about it. But given that he served in the military and swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, I would like to think he would fight vigorously against anyone who took his ideas too seriously. 


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