Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I just don't care about James Fallows: "The Tragedy of the American Military"

CDR Salamander, being younger than I, and a naval officer who came of age in the 1980's has a nice long piece on James Fallows The Tragedy of the American Military at The Tragedies of James Fallows. I commend it to you, if you are of the age where James Fallows was part of your formative past.

My own reaction to the work of Mr. Fallows is as it has long been: I. Just. Don't. Care.

"Opinions," as one of my old warrant mentors used to say, "are like a**holes. Everyone has one." Mr. Fallows has the right, long defended by men better than he, to express his opinions however and wherever he can find either an audience or a publisher.

If his angst over evading the draft in the 1960's continues, that is his problem.

As a child of the same era, I was close to many of those who faced the test of whether to serve if called by their country or partake of their right to reject service as an indication of disagreement with an "immoral" war in Vietnam. Some who rejected the call to service went honorably to jail for their beliefs, in the finest traditions and logical consequence of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and rejected being "tools of the state":
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others- as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders- serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few- as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men- serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.
Whatever. After name-calling his fellow citizens (a title he seems to have rejected), at least Thoreau went to jail for his beliefs. After all, he famously spent one night in jail for refusing to pay the "poll tax." I expected the students of Harvard in my day to be willing to go to jail for much weightier matters - such as the right of the state to commit them to involuntary servitude in a time of war that the students believed to be unjust. But no, they took a lesser path, these "Fallows travelers" and sought refuge in phony medical excuses or claims of deviant behavior of the sort which nowadays would not even forbid them from enlisting or being commissioned.

If Mr. Fallows wants to spin his tale and opine, let him first find the grave of the man who went in his place and apologize to him. Let him explain to the dead why his value to society is so much higher than theirs.

If you ask, "Who am I to judge him?" My answer if that I volunteered my services. No draftee took my place.

If I found the Vietnam war immoral, it was in the way it was entered into and managed by the civilian leadership, not by the military leaders who, with a sense of duty that seems to elude Mr. Fallows, followed the Constitution as they understood it. Should they have resigned rather than go forward with plans with which they disagreed ? Maybe. You could write a book about that.

You want to critique moral delinquency? You might look at the way the Democrat dominated Congress abandoned our South Vietnamese allies after 1972, you could take excursion into trying to figure out the needless deaths caused by cutting off funding. Moral high ground? From a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter? Don't make me laugh.

After Vietnam, I stayed on active duty and in the reserves and was a witness to the vast improvements in the military that came after the draft ended and in the increasing professionalism of the armed services - in great part as a result of lessons learned from Vietnam.
If you want it in a nutshell, there is almost no comparison between today's services and the one I joined long ago and which Mr. Fallows evaded.

One of those improvements involves the motivation of the people serving. Coupled with that is not having to spend a vast amount of time keeping an eye on draftees who really don't want to be in the service and lack the skills that make them useful for much other that painting rocks white and picking up cigarette butts.

Mr. Fallows understanding of the history of civil-military relations in the U.S. is limited, as others have already pointed out. He leaves out Civil War draft riots, rich kids paying others to take their place in the Union Army and much more. If he had a better understanding of history perhaps he would not have used WWII as his focus of the "good old days" when every household had a Soldier, Sailor, Marine or defense worker in it. Instead, he says
"Let’s skip to today’s Iraq-Afghanistan era, in which everyone “supports” the troops but few know very much about them."
And he says, this means the "public"suffers because its art forms, movies and television are so weak that it fails the citizenry because
". . . they lack the comfortable closeness with the military that would allow them to question its competence as they would any other institution’s."
What? Give me an 'effing break. Over the last 13 years, we've had embeds up the yingyang, brilliant first hand reports from the troops, milblogs, etc, etc. Hell, Sebastian Junger's Restrepo and Korengal ought to be required watching for Congress and any administration who want to get a look at our current wars and the small wars of the future. If you don't feel close to the military, you aren't trying.

You want to know veterans? Get out of the ivory tower and go meet them where they are now working. Write something challenging the lies that proclaim every vet suffers from PTSD and is a loose cannon unsafe to be around - you be surprised how many vets will come forward to talk to you about the harm the media has done to them and how normal their lives are. Why, some of them even have wives and kids and dreams.

If you feel the tokens of respect shown to the military and veterans at football games is "over the top" then come tell us about your feelings toward those you attacked ROTC students in the 1960s or assaulted troops returning from doing their duty in Vietnam. Should we honor those who bombed ROTC buildings at halftime? How about a Bill Ayers/Bernardine Dohrn halftime show?. We could have the bands play suitable music, like The Internationale:
No more deluded by reaction
On tyrants only we’ll make war
The soldiers too will take strike action
They’ll break ranks and fight no more
And if those cannibals keep trying
To sacrifice us to their pride
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
We’ll shoot the generals on our own side.
Everyone can sing along!

Suck it up Mr. Fallows, it does not affect you what tributes are given to our troops except as it batters at the door of your self-respect. Besides, this too shall pass, as it always has. Until we need the military again.

If you feel the sons and daughters of the "upper crust" (apparently as being graduates of Ivy League universities) are not serving as they should, I would suggest the answer is not conscription, but a little dose of patriotism injected into their schooling. Not as in "my country right or wrong" but as in "my country, my duty." And maybe that duty is to be a "dissenter" who is willing to pay a price and not run away.

You want to question "competence?" Look no further than the editors at Atlantic who let this stuff find its way into print.

Somehow, the irony of a "chickenshit" draft evader pointing accusing fingers at "chickenhawks" has lost its humor for me. Instead, I come back to my original vibe toward Mr. Fallows: "I. Just. Don't. Care."


  1. Though nicely written, I cannot reconcile your exposition's claim that "I. Just. Don't. Care."

    I remain impreesed by the generally superior quality (character, patriotism and education) of the 'ordinary men' from all services with whom I had served.

    The last paragraph would have been all I needed to know about Mr. James Fallows. Enlisting in 1966, I was the only one in my high school's graduating class to serve during Nam.

    A military draft is preferable when winning convincingly is actually necessary. But the necessity for winning seems only to come with the U.S. Congress formally declaring a war. Without a formal declaration of war, members of the U.S. Congress and K-Street lobbyists are mighty welcome to fight their own military conflicts and actions for whatever political reasons that may suit them.

    The time for some D.C. blowhards and nebbishs to spend their own blood and treasure is well overdue. Otherwise, as Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “It’s become just too easy to go to war,”

    Wishing you and yours all the best for the New Year!

  2. Yea Verily Eagle Speak. I( could not have put it better.