America, the Militaristic? Part I

A short time ago, the London TLS (Times Literary Supplement) ran a review titled “As American as apple pie” on two books about American war literature. The review contained the opening statement that “War is one of the founding principles of the United States of America,” and it ended with the assertion that US is a “uniquely military nation.” The reviewer did not exactly say that the United States is a militaristic country, but she came close, and her statements echoed some previous imputations of American militarism. Most Americans like to think of ours as a peace-loving nation, that war and the maintenance of large standing armed forces have been thrust on us by foreign conflicts and other occasions of dire necessity.  Others, some our compatriots, point to the recurrences of American conflicts, the very large defense budget, the large and profitable domestic defense industry, the prevalence of military iconography, even to our pious regard for servicemembers and veterans, as evidence of American militarism.  

There is certainly a considerable literature on the subject of American militarism. One of the seminal works in this genre is Militarism, U.S.A. (1970), by retired Marine colonel James Donavan, with an introduction by retired general and Marine Corps Commandant David Shoup.  More recent is The New American Militarism (2005, 2013) by retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich. Bacevich cites other works like Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival and The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson. An early work on European and American militarism is A History of Militarism (1937, revised 1959) by Alfred Vagts. Vagts makes a distinction between military and militarism. The former is concerned with matters proper to military forces and to soldiers: training, tactics, the winning of wars and battles. The latter is…well, what is militarism?

Variously defined and alluded to in dictionaries and the various works on the subject, militarism is an excessive veneration of the military, of military symbols, uniforms, the martial virtues, of the army as an institution and of soldiers. It may involve the misuse of military methods in civil undertakings, like the imposing of military discipline in schools, or putting civilian bureaucrats into quasi-military uniforms. Because of the excessive regard for military methods in militaristic states, militarism often goes along with an aggressive foreign policy that favors the use of force over diplomacy.  

History offers quite a few examples of societies that were arguably militaristic. Ancient Greece, Sparta especially but not alone, was at least highly militarized: often aggressive, prizing the martial virtues above all others. The same could be said of Rome, although probably not of the Byzantine empire, which, although it could be aggressive, seemed to regard war and armies as some of life’s many tragic necessities. European medieval civilization, in which kings led armies and the aristocracy was most distinguished by skill at arms, had at least some militaristic traits. We might almost be led to conclude that a little militarism is not necessarily a bad thing, promoting certain virtues and creating strong military and even civic institutions, even a kind of societal esprit de corps.  Unfortunately, once it takes root, militarism may be hard to control.    

The poster-child of extreme modern militarism is surely Germany up through May, 1945. German militarism may have had its roots in the 30 Years War, when the German states were the hapless military playground of the rest of Europe. Even earlier than that, however, Germans had a reputation as enthusiastic soldiers and mercenaries. Poverty and strategic vulnerability may have helped to push militarism on Germany. German militarism eventually grew to absurd dimensions, until Germans were finally cured of it by two devastating defeats in the 20th century. If militarists believe that war is the ultimate measure of individuals and nations, German militarists had failed their own test, and some were perhaps finally convinced that war is not such a wonderful and ennobling experience, after all.

Next: America, the Militaristic? Part II. Causes and Cure

How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From a Renaissance Education

                A few months ago, I got a message through ResearchGate from Rhodes College English professor Scott Newstok. Professor Newstok was welcoming me to the “How to Think” author’s club. We eventually exchanged books, and I hope he has enjoyed my book, How to Think Like an Officer, even half as much as I liked his. How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From a Renaissance Education packs an immense amount of learning and allusion into a short volume, but it wears its erudition lightly. How to Think Like Shakespeare is also an important book. Professor Newstok is making an articulate, unique argument for the importance of the humanities, and for education that acknowledges and develops the humanity of the students.  Interspersed with this argument, he points out the limitations and damaging effects of remote education and constant access to digital media, citing sources and studies to make his point.

Although not especially well-educated by the standards of his day, Shakespeare’s education formed the foundation of some of the greatest works of world literature. This alone is a fairly good recommendation for the Renaissance humanist education that he received. Of course, thousands of people received an education similar to Shakespeare’s and did not go on to write great literature. Prof. Newstok isn’t making the claim that we might write like Shakespeare, however, but the somewhat more modest claim that, by understanding and to the extent possible emulating Shakespeare’s education, we might at least come to think as he did, with at least some of Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature and behavior, of our motives, aspirations, and various contrivances.

To make this goal reachable, Newstok identifies some of the key ingredients of a Shakespearean education. Some of those which he identifies and discusses, devoting a chapter to each, are attention, imitation, exercises, conversation, and “stock.” The ability to exercise attention is threatened by modern technology, but even Shakespeare wrote (in Hamlet) of “this distracted globe.” The art of focused, even rapt attention is necessary to study, to learning and empathy, and it has always had to contend with distractions and the limitations of our energy. Imitation, of worthwhile writing especially, was another important feature of a Shakespearean education. Through imitation, the student came to understand the characteristics of good or great writing. Our choice of models is important, but a person probably can’t go far wrong trying to imitate a few favored classics. Ours is an age that prizes creativity, but this cannot take place in a vacuum, nor. Creativity cannot flourish without a studied consideration of the merits of the acknowledged masters in a field, a consideration that imitation can, perhaps uniquely, enable. Writers might imitate the Bard himself, or Dickens, or Dashiell Hammett, or some combination.   

Exercises are another idea at which the modern, individualistic mind may rebel, but exercises can be more liberating than limiting. When done with words, they give us an idea of how many ways there are to say the same thing, and certainly the beginning of an idea of which is most suitable, expressive, or exact. Conversation also increases our range, introducing us to different points of view, and giving us practice in listening and questioning.  Newstok quotes John Stuart Mill as saying, “He who knows only his only side of the case, knows little of that.”

            Finally, “stock,” or “common stock” is Newstok’s deliberately archaic term for a fund of knowledge of which an individual partakes and to which she may contribute. Even in an age of readily available information, the knowledge we labor to accumulate and retain is still of value, partly because it equips us to add the common stock of knowledge available to all literate and interested persons. (As I am doing now, in my modest way, by writing about Newstok and Shakespeare, his mentor and exemplar.) One of my favorite sentences in the book is in the chapter on stock. “When rhetoricians spoke of inventio, they meant the first step in constructing an argument: making an inventory of your mind’s stock of knowledge.” Our ability to invent is based on the knowledge we possess prior to the act or process of invention.

                Among other things, I think that How to Think Like Shakespeare could provide a much-needed boost to the morale of humanities teachers everywhere. Under siege for years, the humanities have lately been suffering some disheartening losses, with fewer faculty, course and major offerings, and frankly fewer interested students. Newstok’s book is in effect a counterattack, a sally from the beleaguered fortress, and it may do its part to retake some of the ground that’s been lost. We need that victory now, when too many have given up thinking for prejudice and fixed ideas without foundation. It is a paradox, but no contradiction, that the path to our future may lie in some of the best that the past has to offer.            

Work, Integrity, and the Priestly Calling in the Novels of J.F. Powers

                Award-winning 20th century writer J.F. Powers wrote short stories and novels. I encountered his first novel, Morte D’Urban in a used bookstore a few months ago, and since then I have also read his last, Wheat That Springeth Green. Morte D’Urban won the American National Book Award in 1963. Wheat That Springeth Green apparently took Powers twenty-five years to complete. Both books show the same careful craftsmanship on the levels of prose and overall construction.  Both concern the lives of Catholic Priests in mid-century, middle-west America, a favorite topic for Powers. One critic has asserted that Morte D’Urban is the classic American novel on work, and the same can be said of Wheat That Springeth Green. Both depict the compromises, disillusionment, sometimes sheer exhaustion that are involved in pursuing a career, especially one involving membership in a large organization. As a retired military officer, I was struck by the interplay of ideals and ambition, leadership and authority, sacrifice and compensation, and tradition/doctrine and the individual, that are features of both military and religious professions.  

                Of course, there are demands that are particular to the clergy, in the case of Catholic priests there is rule of celibacy (strictly observed by both protagonists, although this does not mean that it isn’t an issue).  Another pitfall for parish priests may be the need to attract paying church members and to otherwise raise funds. Both priests are intelligent and somewhat worldly, but in one instance the priest’s willingness to court a wealthy donor, overlooking flaws in the man’s character, along with a scene in which he is forced to confront the price of his celibacy, may help to bring on a personal crisis. The other priest as a young seminarian seems to be aiming at sainthood, or at least sanctity, even wearing a hair shirt for a time. He falls far short of sainthood, and he adjusts himself to the practical demands of running a parish, but along the way, and perhaps in contrast to the other priest-protagonist, he retains his integrity. He refuses, for example, to resort to hard-sell tactics to raise money, even when pressured by his bishop to raise exorbitant sums. He also maintains his opposition to the Vietnam War, despite the fact that a defense plant is an important employer in the town, and an influential local journalist is virulently pro-war. We also learn that this opposition is no trendy liberalism. He has thought much about questions of war and peace, as he demonstrates when he gives a short but fairly advanced critique of Catholic “Just War” theory, claiming that it takes the individual conscience too little into account.  Powers himself was a conscientious objector in World War II, and was jailed for a time, also serving as a medical orderly, so it is more than likely that the priest is expressing the author’s antiwar views.     

                There are other interesting differences between the two priests. The more worldly priest is a man of unquestionable, even exceptional ability, but he has a tendency to hold himself aloof. The other priest is more successful in cultivating priestly fellowship and other relationships that do not necessarily further his career or lead to donations. He has a becoming instinct to side with the underdog.               

  When the more worldly priest gets his coveted shot at a position of leadership, he finds himself sick and tired, unable to perform at his best. One critic has said that he ends up embracing sanctity and forsaking the world that had meant so much to him. There is something to this view, but in a sense the priest has sanctity foisted on him by ill-health and lassitude. I would say that his retreat from the world is at least only partly deliberate. It might be said that the other priest is younger, a heavy drinker and putting on weight. It may be that when his opportunity at advancement comes, he won’t be fully capable of rising to the challenge. These are mature novels, by which I mean that not everything is revealed, and that the interplay of concealment and revealing is achieved artfully. Of course, we never know what will, or might happen after a novel ends. In this case, I like to imagine the priest would be prepared: More hope for all of us flawed servants of one god or another, trying to do our best.             

Milley, Muslims, and “Others”: Armies and Social Change

A recent article in the New York Times (June 27, 2021) reported on the inclusion of Muslims in the French armed forces. Although French society remains generally unfriendly towards Muslims, the French military has welcomed them, offering accommodation for their religious practices and increasing the numbers of Muslim chaplains. The article reminded me of the role that armies can play, sometimes unwittingly and reluctantly, in social change, particularly in the enfranchisement of marginal groups. The demands of military service are great, and those willing and able to shoulder them are accepted often despite outer differences which in less demanding occupations might be considered disqualifying. Gays and lesbians were marginalized in civil society and long denied the right to serve in the armed forces unless they concealed their sexual identity. Many have served, however, especially in World War II, when the draft resulted in the services taking on a massive cross section of young American men, and when women served in much higher numbers than ever before. Historian Allan Bérubé makes the argument that World War II saw the birth of the gay rights movement by giving gays a much stronger sense of identity and self-respect, and by creating networks of gay men and lesbians which would be turned towards political activism.    

Military service on the part of members of a marginal group, even if honorable and in large numbers, does not guarantee that acceptance will be extended to them by the larger society. The black soldiers who served in the Civil War and in World Wars I and II may have hoped that their service would be acknowledged by greater acceptance from American society at large, but this was not to be. The military eventually integrated, however, and when it did so it was in advance of much of civil society. Many black Americans have found the military a personal vehicle to social mobility and status. In this, they have echoed the experience of immigrant groups since our founding. The army of the Revolutionary War had a high percentage of recent arrivals. This has likely been the case with all American armies since and, as the recent French experience indicates, we are not alone.

            The role of the armed forces in social change is obviously complex. Some would deny that the armed force should concern themselves with social change, sticking instead to their warfighting role and other assigned missions. Regular, volunteer militaries such as the one America has had since the 1970s tend to attract socially and often politically conservative individuals, people drawn by tradition and generally comfortable with the exercise of authority. In my book, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Fought and Thought the Modern World into Existence, I make the argument that armies have been agents of civilization as well as warfighting entities, that armies guard, build, and create as well as destroy.  Military service can also be highly instructive, introducing members to a broader experience and conception of humanity itself.  

            The recent remarks of CJCS General Milley about the desirability of service members having an understanding of such matters as critical race theory and the Capitol insurgency might be considered in this context. Soldiers educated or self-educated in important historic, political, and social issues might become agents of social stability and change. Such agency would have to take place within the limits placed on partisan political activity. Soldiers so educated might also become more effective as leaders and teammates, fueled by a greater understanding of human rights and their importance in the Constitution and the oath of service they swear.  Military forces have long been viewed as schools of citizenship, and they may serve their societies in a variety of ways, to include contributing to necessary social change. The armed forces and individual servicemembers can set an example of inclusion and act the role of informed citizenry. As veterans, we can also participate more freely in the electoral process and other public matters, promoting necessary social change and inclusion, and thus providing a service to our country as great and valuable as that which we rendered in uniform.