In my last post, I ended by discussing German militarism, which evolved into what may be the most extreme form of militarism, at least in modern history. Bad as it was, German militarism had origins that make it somewhat understandable. Could we also say this of the United States, that we are perhaps militaristic (not as much as pre-1945 Germany, I would say), but that this is not entirely our fault, but that of allies who asked for our help, of aggressive nations and of terrorists. It may be that we have made a virtue of necessity, embracing that which we claim (or once claimed) to have accepted only reluctantly. George C. Marshall once said that a political problem looked at in a military light becomes a military problem.
Militarism is related to fascism, in fact mutatis mutandis, they can seem to resemble each other, with fascism perhaps the bigger category and militarism a kind of subset. Whatever we have been, we are now seeing a rise in fascistic thought in the United States: a distrust of democracy and the electorate, a preference for primitive, atavistic thought involving racism and xenophobia, a hostility to reason (See my earlier post on metaphysical thinking). Allied with this is often an uncritical regard for the military, a preference for military solutions over soft power, for nationalism over the pursuit of international cooperation. So militarism, as it often does, creeps in the back door. The January 6 attack on the Capitol, with its high proportion of servicemembers and veterans, may be seen as a manifestation of both fascism and militarism. We are fortunate that neither the military leadership nor the rank and file seem to share the views of the insurrectionists and other extremists in any significant numbers, but the spectacle of right-wing movements involving vets and servicemembers out of proportion to their numbers seems new, and it is troubling. That men and women who have sworn an oath to the Constitution now seek to subvert it is a comment of military culture and education. Military service is supposed to be a school for citizenship. Instead, it has inclined some towards a lawless putsch mentality that is completely at odds with good citizenship.
Of course, extremism among military members is only one manifestation of what can be seen as American militarism. It is more effect than cause, as things stand now. Like the veterans of Hitler’s Munich putsch in 1923, many of the participants in the 6 January insurrection are going to jail, largely discredited, although this does not men that we have seen the last of them. The other possible indicators of militarism, the large military budget, establishment, and industry, the wars, recent interventions and global deployments, remain with us. It may be that 20 years of dubious conflict have knocked some of the militarism out of us. This remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the armed forces themselves can contribute by ensuring that their military does not become militaristic. The fact that books warning of militarism are written by retired officers like Donavan and Bacevich suggests that there is some awareness of the military’s responsibility in steering the nation away from militarism. A practical idea advanced by Col. Bacevich is to require all officers to attend civilian colleges as undergraduates, then going through officer training at a service academy for a year or two. (He mentions West Point specifically, but presumably this approach would be followed by the other services and their respective academies as well.) In effect, this would be following the British system, where most of those who attend Sandhurst have already graduated from a civilian university. This might have the advantages of improving both the training and the education of new officers, of removing the separation in the officer corps between graduates of service academies and non-academy graduates, and of creating a less insular, less militaristic officer corps. The education of officers should include discussion of the pitfalls of militarism, which may be especially present in the case of professionalized militaries with generally high morale. Military elitism is akin to militarism.
Above all, soldiers, veterans, and the military in aggregate must strive to develop a sense of proportion, even a sense of humor, about what they do and their place in society. They must avoid the sins of self-importance and self-righteousness, which Colonel Caldwell in Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle calls the “occupational disease of the soldier, and…the worst sin in all the world.” The military virtues may have value even in civil life, but they are not the only virtues. Military service is fine thing, done right, but it is not the only or even necessarily the highest form of service. Finally, military solutions may sometimes be required, but they are rarely the best solutions available. Looking back on my two active deployments, to Lebanon in 1982 and Iraq in 2003, neither worked out so well in what we can see of the long run. Still, I would not trade my service, neither for money nor fame. I humbly acknowledge this, and I ask no more than the opportunity to go on serving in my own way, something for which I can be partly grateful to my status as veteran in this uniquely military nation.