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.
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.