Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Danger of Putting the US Military on a Pedestal

Memorial Day got me thinking.

Actually, a number of articles and blog posts and chain emails I’ve read recently and a number of comments I’ve heard over the last year got me thinking about public perception of veterans, Memorial Day just brought it into focus.

When I first entered the military all those many years ago I was taught about leadership.

The military is big on leadership.  They’re experts on it, on what makes a good leader and what makes a bad leader, on what makes good Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen, and what makes bad ones.

Before all those leadership fads of the late 80’s and the 90’s, the Navy used to boil leadership down to three basic fundamentals: Authority, Accountability, and Responsibility.  The navy said that as a leader your were given certain authority, you were responsible by law and tradition to exercise that authority properly, and you would be held accountable again by law and tradition for the results of your authority.  Bottom line, the Skipper is responsible for everything that happens on his ship and he will be held accountable. Period and no excuses.  The Captain, as they say, goes down with the ship.

Of course, it’s never that black and white, but what it boils down to is that military leaders are supposed to be always accountable.

Over the years, that simple principle served me very, very well as a military leader. You earn authority, your are responsible for the proper exercise thereof, and you will be held to account for your orders and actions.

Back to Memorial Day.

I think Memorial Day is a fine idea , if only to remind folks here in the US that there are those who have voluntarily placed their precious selves between home and war’s desolation.  This is something I think Americans need to be periodically reminded of.

But I will say this, Memorial Day – and by extension, Veteran’s Day and other events set aside to commemorate military events – also seem to exacerbate the tendency of Americans to place their military on a pedestal.

It’s an odd dichotomy, one that only somebody who has spent time in uniform would notice.

On one hand, Americans tend to regard the average grunt as, well if we’re to be charitable , not too bright – and if we’re not charitable, much much worse.  I’ve written about stereotypes and the military before – and opined that the military is the last safe prejudice in American society. Nothing since I wrote that post has convinced me to change my mind.  Witness our continued portrayal on TV and in the movies:

American entertainment often portrays male enlisted people as jarhead robots who scream “Yessir!” and smirk contemptuously at women (especially if the woman in question is some kind of female law enforcement type who is investigating a crime on a military base or a wife trying to figure out what happened to her husband “over there” on that “secret mission”). Female enlisted are usually butch bulldykes with brushcuts and bulging muscles who spend most of their time busting the balls of their male counterparts while cranking out pull-ups in the background – or conversely, they provide the buxom silicon enhanced gratuity in every barracks shower scene. Bulldykes or babes.  Senior NCOs inevitably have some kind of chronic venereal disease that precludes them from returning to the combat zone – which therefore makes them sadistic SOBs who take out their frustrations on everybody around them and who smirk contemptuously at women and usually refer to them as “Honey” (or “shavetails” if the show is striving for “accuracy”).  Junior officers are always incompetent morons who provide plucky comedy relief or red shirt type duties. Senior officers are always covering up a murder, a rape, and/or an international smuggling operation at the behest of some shadowy defense contractor.  A lot of American perception is formed by those shows – because shows such as JAG, Army Wives, A Few Good Men, Good Morning Vietnam, Hamburger Hill, and the routine stereotypes portrayed in everything from the X-files to pretty much every James Cameron movie, are as close as a lot of Americans get to the uniformed services. I’ve repeatedly run into civilians, ordinary Americans both on the Left and the Right, who seem to regard military service, especially career military service, with something akin to pity if not outright contempt (though for different reasons. With the Right it’s usually: Whatsamatter? Couldn’t get a real job? And with the Left it’s usually: Babykiller!). 

And yet, on the other hand, Americans tend to regard their military with an almost mystical reverence.

Some Americans act as if the military can do no wrong.  Ever. Period.  As if the mere mention of criticism is unpatriotic and makes you less of an American.  If somebody wears the uniform, they must be a hero. For example, I got a number of letters over the last couple of months asking my opinion regarding the US Navy SEALs accused of prisoner abuse in Iraq (read the comments under the story, you’ll see what I mean).  I got numerous invitations to join the Free the SEALs (or whatever it was called) Facebook page and a dozen requests to sign various online petitions.  A lot of these letters expressed outrage that anybody would dare accuse “American heroes” of misconduct and how it was a travesty that SEALs should be accused of mistreating prisoners and bemoaned the country going to hell in the usual hand basket. No facts. No real knowledge of the situation. Nothing but rumors and urban legend and preconceived ideas. The general gist of these things were that the SEALs, because they were SEALs, must be innocent. Besides, if they did beat up prisoners, well sir, then the prisoners were dirtbags who had it coming. Any criticism of the military is called “unpatriotic” and denounced.  Any cancelled weapon system or other defense department boondoggle is evidence that the administration doesn’t support the military and if you don’t have a genuine made-in-China yellow ribbon sticker on your bumper well then you’re an Islamofacist treehugging Obama voting commie fag who DOESN’T SUPPOR THE TROOPS!  And etc, etc. I’ve seen this kind of knee jerk response in dozens of other cases over the last couple of years – and especially this last year since Barack Obama took office.  

Reality is, of course, somewhere between the two extremes.

There are some pretty awesome folks in the America military – brilliant, dedicated, driven, courageous, honorable people.  I’ve been privileged to serve with many, some of which read this blog. These are men and women that I admire and respect most highly, and that I would and did trust with my life on more than one occasion.  All of us who served know people like this.

But there are also shitbags, assholes, jerkoffs, fuckups, backstabbers, booger eating idiots, and cowardly self involved conniving sons of a bitches. I’ve been cursed to serve with many of these people too, hopefully none of which have discovered this blog or would have the courage to let on if they did. These are men and women that caused everyone around them nothing but headaches and most of whom I wouldn’t trust to hold my brown plastic MRE spoon.  All of us who served know people like this.

When I got those letters, about the SEALs in Iraq, I ignored them and I didn’t write about the situation and I felt no sense of outrage whatsoever. Here’s why: sometimes SEALs screw the pooch.  Yep.  Being a member of an elite special forces unit doesn’t automatically imbue you with magical superpowers or a free pass when it comes to rules and regulations (if anything, special operations personnel are held to higher standards of behavior). Barack Obama didn’t single out those guys. The Liberals in Congress didn’t go after them.  The accusation came from a fellow Sailor, a Petty Officer who witnessed behavior that he thought went beyond the pale.  The Navy did exactly what it was supposed to do in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, it conducted an Article 32 hearing and investigated the matter.  No amount of knee jerk patriotic outrage, no Facebook petition, no warhawk conservative chest-beating should change that or even be considered. It was an internal matter, a professional military matter.  There was an accusation of misconduct, it was investigated, there was some indication that the charges might be legit, the case went to trial and the charges were dismissed – i.e. the system functioned exactly as it was supposed to.  The Petty Officer who made the accusation in the first place, was supposed to make a report if he thought something was wrong – we all are.  If folks had spoken up at Abu Ghraib when that CIA bullshit started, you’d never have heard of the joint.  But – and this is the important part so pay attention – if there was evidence of wrong doing, of prisoner mistreatment, those SEALs should have been held accountable to the fullest extent of military law. Period. They don’t get a pass just because they’re SEALs. The rules apply to all of us equally. Period. And the SEALs will be the first ones to tell you that.

Some Americans act outraged at any criticism of any kind. If we accidentally drop a bomb on a school full of children, they either deny that the school and the children existed in the first place or proclaim proudly that those junior terrorists in training shouldn’t have been sitting on top of a legitimate military target.  They got blowed up, ipso facto they must have been the enemy, go USA! 

I simply cannot fathom this kind of mindless might makes right patriotism – it’s contrary to everything the United States stands for.

But, on the flip side, far too many times the rules haven’t been enforced, military folks haven’t been held to the standards, those in charge looked the other way or deliberately broke the law and violated regulations, too many times those in charge tried to cover up some pretty terrible cases of incompetence and dereliction of duty and outright cowardice.  Abu Ghraib, the USS Iowa turret explosion, the Boeing Aerial Tanker contract scandal, the rapes in Iraq and at the Air Force Academy, the cheating scandal at the Naval Academy, all the way back to events like the Mai Lai massacre, and worse. We learned from those events, and sometimes the lesson was extremely painful – mention Tail-hook around any Sailor, see if he doesn’t flinch – but we learned. The rules apply to everybody. And we have those rules for a reason.

Now I don’t know if the ratio of heroes to zeros is higher in the military than in the civilian world. I’d like to think that it is. My experience is that there are far, far more admirable folks in uniform than the scumbags – but then I was privileged to spend most of my career among a handpicked cadre of folks who were themselves selected from an already elite division of the US Navy, and I happened to work extensively with SEALs in Iraq and they were the finest bunch of people I’ve ever met, so my perception may be somewhat biased.

My point is that donning a uniform doesn’t automatically make you a hero, or worthy of respect and deference, or entitle you to a get out of jail free card.

I’ve said this before, respect is earned, each and every day – and it doesn’t take much to lose it.

And so while I appreciate the patriotic ideal of Memorial Day – and I do appreciate the idea of memorial day – I think that considered criticism of the military is also patriotic. 

That’s right.

Americans should be critical of their military, they should hold their armed forces to higher standards – after all those forces are the most powerful in the world, the most powerful in all of human history, and they reflect directly on the United States of America.  The US military is under civilian control – but that also means that American civilians are responsible for their military’s conduct. You can’t have authority without responsibility and accountability.  All Americans should be critical of their military’s action and demand adherence to the highest standards.

Blind patriotism is to abrogate responsibility and accountability.

And if you give up responsibility and accountability then you’ve given up your authority as well.

Think about it.


  1. A couple weeks ago I heard about an Army Captain (I think it was a Cpt) in Afghanistan who had 12 Taliban prisoners under his control. They were approaching the end of the time the US could hold them before turning them over to Afghan control (which he felt meant release). The Captain was pretty certain these guy had perpetrated some terrorist acts, but hadn't been able to crack them during interrogations.

    So he grabbed three of them from the holding cell, took them outside, hogtied them, stepped a few yards away and put three rounds from his M4 into the dirt. Then he went back inside and the other Taliban began singing.

    When I heard that basic story my thought was, "I salute you and your willingness to go to jail to prove a point." He was facing a court martial.

    And then during the interview the reporter asked him what he thought he was accomplishing by firing in the dirt and what effect he was going for. The captain then proceeded to spiel out a line about how he didn't know what the effect would be or what he thought his other prisoners would think. After all it was perfectly innocent because he fired into the ground, he didn't intend any effect on his other prisoners.

    And that's when my opinion changed to, "Oh boy, are you going to jail, and for the longest term possible." It's one thing to violate code, it's another to be stupid in command. With his response to that question he was either 1) is too stupid to hold rank above cadet or 2) thinks the rest of us are too stupid to see through such crap, which then leads us back to 1.

    I'm sure some will think of him as a hero who did what was necessary. And until he pulled that crap about not knowing, I would have agreed. After that line, nope, he's not a hero. Heros take responsibility for their actions, either for the good or the bad.

  2. That is exactly right, Steve.

    I used to think very highly of Admiral Frank Kelso - right up until the dirty rotten worthless son of a bitch sold the rest of us down the river after Tail-Hook. And that was before I knew what he'd done during the investigation into the Iowa explosion - for which I think he should have gone to Leavenworth for Conduct Unbecoming. I wouldn't piss on him if he was on fire. In the end, he left us holding the bag instead of taking responsibility in Navy Tradition - but what really set my blood boiling and still does to this day was his denial of knowledge of events at Tail-Hook, despite being there himself. Either he was a clueless idiot who didn't belong in charge of a salad fight, or he was lying - lying to Congress is one thing and bad enough - but the implication is that we, his Sailors, were so fucking stupid we'd believe him. It was that contempt for us that made me see him for the scumbag he truly is.

  3. Nick from the O.C.June 2, 2010 at 12:20 AM

    I don't know about the military but I have some passing familiarity with the world of corporate business. I love it when somebody "takes full responsibility" for their actions.

    You've seen the interviews on 60 Minutes, the politicians caught with their pants around their ankles (or around the ankles of a young man). You've seen the perp walks and the testimony. So you tell me, what does that phrase mean anyway?

    In the world of corporate business, I'm thinking that phrase means, "I screwed up but I still want my year-end bonus and I'll fire a few low-level folks for effect if you'll give it to me."

    I have never, ever, seen any corporate officer actually take responsibility and be held accountable for wrong-doing. Sure, some "leave for personal reasons" or to "spend time with family" but that's never treated as any kind of disciplinary action.

    I guess it's different in the military, huh? Maybe we should hold 'em up on a pedestal....

    doteb = new anti-depressant from AstraZenica.

  4. You're so awesome.

    I did four years of NJROTC and as a civilian was able to get a rare look inside the world of the military. I'm really grateful for that time. Every time we had a guest speaker or went on a field trip to a base, I learned that the military is just as diverse as any other part of life. You're so right, there are good people and not so good people.

    But curse me for daring to question the military every now and then. I'm just so gosh darn un-American and I should be burned at the stake with all of my other liberal godless cohorts.


  5. Another well-thought-out article, sir.

    I do think that part of the characterization of the US military comes from the pre-volunteer days. Back when we were drafting people, a lot more flakes were retained in the service, if for no other reason to prevent word getting round that being a flake was a ticket out.

    Now with the volunteer military, getting rid of flakes is easier and more acceptable.

    But that's just a nit.

  6. As usual I have nothing to add, but I want to tell you how much I enjoy your writing and I appreciate your view on things.

    What can I say? I'm a fan.

  7. What can I say? I'm a fan

    You can keep saying that

  8. Steve, Jim,
    as usuall ii am in full agreement, and jim i will quote you (as best i can) "thats what presidential pardons are for, if you break the law for the greater good."
    Integrity is big in the Marines (or so a number of the honest ones of us like to sing) all a shitty situation needs to make it easier on all partys involed is a little integrity i know people who have commited actions that were considered for courts martial however thier integrity put them in a Battalion Level NJP instead "you've done wrong but you were a man about it so instead of ruining your life we'll just kick you in the head"

    sorry i was ranting.

  9. I don't know, Jim -- I think in the current environment, it'll be a long time before criticism of the military is acceptable. After all, the Right only just discovered two years ago that questioning the president's every action and decision is their constitutional duty and not treason.

    My job entails working with people with disabilities, and I deal with disabled veterans on a fairly regular basis. I confess, I do put them on a pedestal. These are men and women who have done things I could never do and sacrificed for it. I have a hard time not elevating them (and their motives).

    At the same time, I understand what you're saying. As I've discovered, people with disabilities are no different from the rest of us -- some are nice, some are assholes.

    "fewastab" -- what Super Mario said when he confessed to being a serial killer.

  10. Bill, I understand exactly what you're saying, but there's a difference between honoring vets for their service/sacrifice and putting them on a pedestal.

    Putting people or organizations on a pedestal and awarding everybody in uniform honorary hero status does two things, it cheapens the sacrifice of true heroes and it skews your perception and thinking.

    Some folks in the military are real heroes, in the most fundamental way possible. However, a few are cowards or fuckups or psychopaths. But most are just ordinary people who do things others find extraordinary. Take me for example - I did my job and I survived some fairly hairy situations and I got my men home alive and I've got a chest full of medals and box full of citations to prove it, but I'm sure as hell not anybody's hero. Not even close. Those decorations and some of my sea stories might get me a cup of coffee or a free beer down at the VFW, but other than that they don't mean shit to anybody but me.

    And that's how it should be. You know some folks in uniform are paid to play basketball or toot a horn in the band - while what they do is important in some regard, they sure aren't up front kicking in doors and taking bullets. I'm not dissing their service, but not everybody is a hero. Some of us just turn wrenches. And again, that's OK. But when you start elevating service to heroism, then everybody wants to be a hero - and some just can't resist the temptation. Look at those two idiots in Congress who just got caught lying about their service records. They both served honorably, they did their jobs, hell they made it to Congress - but they still felt the need to lie about their service. Or take the dozens of cowardly shitbags who get caught every year pretending to be former SEALs or MoH winners. Pathetic.

    Elevating service to automatic heroism not only hoses up the military, but it blinds the average citizen to those acts that are significantly less than heroic - say like prisoner abuse.

    Honor your vets, but don't put them on a pedestal. That's all I'm saying here.

  11. Hey Jim,

    So I'm late in getting to this superb post. You nail it squarely on the head. Goats and heroes abound in all walks of life. Sadly, waaaay to many goats these days. At one time, our "professions" made it a point to police the goat-ish and celebrate the hero. But, in today's society, equally addled with celebrity worship and "denial of the bad," everyone is a hero. It creates the massive cognitive dissonance that enables the elite (and selfish) powerful to discombobulate the masses so badly that they think they are Revolutionaries Reincarnated (what we call Tea Baggers). Someday, the goat:hero ratio will be righted. And life will become saner -- and more boring!

    Keep up the good writing shipmate!


    PS -- you're right on with Kelso! And he was surely not the only moral failure of the time--- or since then!

  12. I'm in the branch of the military where the default response to us is "what, you're military?" But this sort of thing has always driven me bonkers-- and it comes from my fellow servicemembers, too. Fuck you guys, we're just some dudes, doing a job. I think my job is kind of awesome! I do it because I believe in what we do, even if it sucks!

    Stop acting like we all deserve gold-plated oral sex just cause we signed on the dotted line!

    That being said, every Veteran's Day you best believe I am taking advantage of those deals and discounts. In civilian clothes. No military paraphernalia worn.


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