The Officer and Civil Society

Tonight is my Intrepid/Missionaries book club, and I will post about that later in the week. For now, here is a short piece that may appear in print sometime next year. Hope you like it.

            Since Plato made military service a prerequisite for the members of his Guardian, or ruling class, the western idea that there was something uniquely edifying, even ennobling, about military service has gone through periods of approval and disfavor, while never entirely disappearing. In our own time, most service members and veterans likely feel that we do have something to contribute to civil society, and the generally high status of the armed forces in America perhaps gives us the opportunity. In this short article, I will briefly answer the question of how we can put our military service to use in civil life, and what is it about military service that we who have served can impart to our fellow citizens who have not had the experience. Of course, the answers will be different for everyone, but I hope my reflections will resonate with service members and my fellow veterans.

Officers and other service members fulfill many roles and may sometimes acquire and practice a wide range of cognitive skills, often under pressure.  We train and organize. We think like tacticians and sometimes like creative artists and practical scientists. These capacities should not be forgotten or left at the door when we are off duty or reach our expiration of service. They are part of our DNA, and they may enable us to make valuable contributions outside the military sphere. The greatest benefit and contribution of military service to the larger society, however, may be ethical rather than purely cognitive. Perhaps above all there is the idea of service, of sacrificing comfort and even safety for a common, greater good. In the military, there is at least the language of ethics represented in some elements as the core values and out Constitutional oath.

Service members in effect belong to no party save their military branch. Social, religious, and racial differences can and often are subordinated to a common mission and set of values. In an American nation that today seems deeply divided, with divisions frankly not to be undone by election results or the dominance of either major party, the military member and veteran can set an example of inclusivity, of comradeship, even of friendship, with all Americans and all people. 

In a way that still strikes me as very strange but fortunate nevertheless, it took a war to convince me that that all men and women were brothers and sisters. I remember seeing the refugees on the road in flight from the fighting in Nasiriya, the parents herding their children out of the line of fire. Some of the Marines gave them water or food, despite orders not to do so. It was a kind of epiphany, one that I cannot fully relate in the intensity of the moment, but one that will always stay with me. This story, as Shakespeare has Henry V say, shall the good man tell his son. Finally, I believe it is the stories of our service, instructive and cautionary, of people at their best and worst, that we perhaps have most to teach and to share.

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