Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Love and War

Interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning (I can't link to it because it's password protected), the upshot of which was a vision of a future U.S. military in which a "Leviathan" military force fights wars and a "System Administrator" organizations works independently, doing nation-building work either after a war or instead of one. It makes sense. The hard reality of Iraq is that the kind of "hearts-and-minds" work we're doing now does not necessarily get done best by soldiers and Marines who are still actively engaging a fluid enemy dispersed among civilian populations.

Americans have a tremendous faith in their military organizations (along with a general unwillingness to
serve in it). This is the source of much of our current angst. Because these young soldiers and Marines are not necessarily better than the rest of us, and the military organization is just another bureaucracy, prone to the same flat tires and blown valves as any other.

I sense a difference in tone between the shock and revulsion of the Rest of the World to the Abu Ghraib pictures and the shock and revulsion of the Home Front. Along with the common reaction ("how could you be so stupid?" "what sadistic barbarism," etc.) there's a big feeling here in the States of "betrayal." You meet that word in Americans' writing, but I don't see it from overseas. The clowns who did this let everyone else down. It's like finding that your football team won the World Cup, and then learning that a very minor player was using drugs, and that disqualified the whole victory.

Or, as one site I visited puts it:

"Part of the impact of the Abu Ghraib affair has been the sense of betrayal many supporters of the war have felt at finding that some of those they trusted most were least worthy of it. The shock of discovering a Bishop at peepshow comes not so much from a finding that peepshows exist as in accepting that some Bishops watch them. 'Love,' John le Carre once remarked, 'is whatever you can still betray' and it was the mark of how deeply we loved the troops that the abuses of Abu Ghraib have cut so deeply into the soul of the nation. And every betrayal's trademark is the belated realization that we should have suspected it all along."

I can't think of many Europeans who would discuss their military forces in public and use the word "love" without a deep sense of irony or (more likely) sarcasm.

Nor can I think of many Europeans I have read who would write this (also plucked from a Web log this week):

"In a world filled with tyrannical forces that desire all mankind to be in bondage, maintaining a tight grip on the minds and bodies of their prisoners, there must be a counteracting force for freedom somewhere in the world. There must be a nation that will stand as the bastion for freedom, giving hope to millions of enslaved people everywhere, that someday someone somewhere will come to their rescue freeing them from their evil masters. There must be hope for freedom, for democracy, for independence, and for justice...

"If not us who? Who is going to step forward to be the bastion for peace, the supporter of the weak, and keeper of the flame of equality? Who will give hope for a different life to the enslaved millions of the world?"

Yet this is something that anti-Americans mistake. They assume we are as detached and cynical as they are, and therefore when we express idealistic motives for our policies, we must be lying. It seems impossible to them that we could say things like this and really mean it.

But we do.

Americans see the U.S. military as the representatives of America itself in the world. We're ashamed of them when they act poorly and proud of them when they act well. Perhaps it's because our military is so large, relative to our population. So many families have sons and daughters in the services that we tend to think of them collectively as all of our sons.

Yet when I think of the people I know who went into the military after high school, some were good, strong spirits, and would be proud warriors in the old tradition. And some were just average people of no great talent or character, for whom the military was a way to get an education in technologies (cheaper than college). And some were neer-do-wells who went in because if they didn't they'd probably end up in jail or worse, and the military was a chance to get some self-discipline. I don't know enough to make a rough estimate of the proportion of the three groups. And I think it varies by region. The South perhaps tends to produce more pure soldiers. The military tradition is greater there and there are many military academy high schools.

Yet there are good reasons we love our military. One of its best qualities is that it is absolutely the most integrated segment of American society. It is color-blind: every ethnicity is represented at every level, and not just because of a desire to promote minorities; they got there by the same skill (or bureaucratic efficiency) as everyone else, and they know it. So far, out of the Iraq war, we've seen top military leadership that is black, white, Hispanic, Filipino, and Arab-American.

The flip-side of that positive effort is a deep resentment of Americans who trash-talk the military and spout endlessly about its brutality and criminality, and tell the world that the Abu Ghraib pictures show the true face of American men and women in uniform. People here feel, probably with some justification, every time a Michael Moore opens his mouth, a U.S. soldier bites the dust. They pay the price for freedom of speech quite literally.