Interrogating the Project of Military History

October 14 - During the Q&A part of my talk on Friday (see entry 49), I tried to communicate my belief that a good deal of military history implicitly accepts such value-laden ideas as that violence is a legitimate way to resolve conflict and that soldiers are people especially to be admired.  I discussed the idea of writing a type of military history that implicitly or explicitly rejected these viewpoints--an "antiwar military history."

In the course of explaining the idea that soldiering was not a profession especially to be admired, I said something to the effect that I had a great many friends who were military officers.  I had a lot of regard for them as people and noted that they would do well in many other professions besides the military.  One audience member challenged me on this point, because it sounded to him as if I held the profession they had chosen in slight regard.  Wouldn't I want people trained and ready to eliminate a terrorist who held 500 children hostage?  I answered as best I could, but apparently not well enough, for afterward I got an email.  It was bracketed at the beginning and end by some very courteous remarks on my speaking abilities, etc., but the heart of it was this:

Perhaps I heard your words incorrectly, but I think not.  My reaction was to you statement (to the effect)  "...I have many friends who are military officers.... and I wish they could do more with the lives... they are talented and smart and could do other things." I think that is what I heard, and I thought I was listening closely, as were we all, you are very engaging!  If that was what you said, then I surely hope you reconsider your comments before stating them again.  Until our enemies have your values, your sense of morality and especially mortality, until we as a human race have evolved much more, would you not want some of our best and brightest leading our soldiers into mortal combat?  And, I guess unlike you, I have yet to meet the first military officer with a rank higher than captain who looks forward to being in a war.  So I think what you said was over-the-line condescending toward our military professionals.  Thank God we have such people.  Heaven knows war is difficult (even Hell!) enough - and hardly brings out the best in all people - without being left to those "who could do more with their lives."     One reason I support reinstating the draft is because I worry that we will not - as a society - attract some small percentage of the best and brightest to even serve in the military, much less make it their career.

I read the email on Friday.  I didn't have a chance to respond until Monday, but it was on my mind for much of the weekend.  Anyway, here's what I wrote in reply:

Many thanks for your email.  To be perfectly frank, I was up all night preparing for that presentation, so between lack of sleep and a head cold I'm not really sure what I said.  I think I was reaching for a thought I placed in the conclusion of a review essay I wrote some years ago for the Journal of Military History:  "More than most historical subjects, war is fraught with moral implications, and it is impossible to write about the subject without coming to grips with this. The problem is perhaps even more acute when one is exploring the reasons human beings participate in war, for if decent men are willing to fight for high ideals it gives war the aura of something righteous and holy (although, indeed, the fact that decent men give themselves to war may be one of the most depressing commentaries on humanity imaginable)."  I can't remember how I phrased things Friday morning, but I'm on record as having said this, so maybe we could use this as our point of departure.

I don't recall ever meeting an officer who looked forward to being in a war, except insofar as he recognized that somewhere within a part of himself he wanted to see how he would measure up.  My impression is that the attractions of military service are different.  It's challenging, physically, mentally, spiritually.  It involves interpersonal skills, such as being a leader, coach, and teacher to one's troops, that I think many officers find deeply satisfying.  There's a great sense of belonging.  Lately I've been reading Absolutely American, a Rolling Stone reporter's account of four years' observation of the cadets at West Point.  His depiction of the military culture there is surprisingly positive and accords with most of my own observations of military life.  I count my own very modest military service--I spent eight years in the Army National Guard--as one of the more useful life experiences I've had.

So I would hardly number myself among those who hold soldiering or officership in small regard.  However, most of the qualities we prize in good soldiers--the warrior spirit, one might say--are equally found in people who spend their lives in the helping professions, particularly when it comes to helping people whom life has disadvantaged.  A couple of years ago I met a young man in Honduras, Paul Mendez, who was a gifted athlete, an effective organizer, and one of the best natural leaders I have ever seen.  Almost single-handedly he handled the on-the-ground operations for "Hands to Honduras," an organization that brings American physicians, dentists, engineers, etc. into that country to provide services the poor can get in no other way. His life made a difference in the lives of thousands.  In February 2003 he was pulling into the airport at San Pedro Sula and a motorcycle collided with his van.  The motorcyclist was badly injured.  Paul wasn't at fault, but a cousin of the motorcyclist was a guard at the airport, saw only that Paul had injured his relative, and shot Paul to death at pointblank range.  If, as a historian, I'm going to tacitly hold up a type of person as someone to admire, Paul's the example I would choose.

Paul's life of service and sacrifice had advantages over soldiering because morally it was positive and straightforward.  Soldiering is, in the nature of the case, more problematic.  It would be terrific to train and prepare oneself to be the man who shoots the terrorist holding 500 children hostage (which is the example I recall your using on Friday).  Quite another thing to train and prepare oneself to be the man who shoots a Grenadian soldier or a Cuban laborer in a dubious action like Urgent Fury, or to pilot an aircraft that bombs a suspected insurgent stronghold and inadvertently kills 83 Iraqi civilians, or to guard prisoners under questionable legal circumstances in Guantanamo.  The point here is simply that a soldier subordinates his moral judgment to the moral judgment of the State.  You and I would agree that we want him to do so.  I happened to be in basic training when the Grenada invasion went down and I was a vocal critic of it.  That bothered some of the guys in my platoon, but not my drill sergeant, a Canadian who had enlisted in the US Army specifically to fight Communism and who won a Bronze Star in Vietnam. That's because he also heard me differentiate between my right as a citizen to question the operation and my obligation under the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] to go fight in it if ordered to do so.  An Army in which everyone behaved as free moral agents would not be much of an Army.  But from a Christian perspective the subordination of my moral judgment to that of the State is nothing to admire; rather, it's at best a melancholy duty, rather along the lines of St. Augustine's comment in The City of God about a judge's obligations given the state of justice in the ancient world, when determining guilt or innocence often depended on torture.  "If such darkness shrouds the social world, will the wise judge take his seat upon the bench or no?  Beyond question he will, for humankind, which he thinks it a wickedness to abandon, compels him and constrains him to this duty." 

A footnote:  The impulse to be moved by sacrifice in war dies very hard.  I rarely look upon the monument to the First Minnesota at Gettysburg without getting tears in my eyes, and in Tuesday's History of War class I happened to touch on the famous sacrifice of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.  Like a good many military historians, I suspect, I know the inscription on the monument there by heart, and recited it to the students:

Go, tell the Spartans, thou who passest by
That here, obedient to their laws
We lie.


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