The Right’s Love Affair with the Military

My post the other day about whether American society really ought to look more like the U.S. Army has induced a vein-popping, spittle-flying tirade over at Right-Thinking from the Left Coast. Apparently, the point I was trying to make was lost on some.

To recap, Robert Wright argued in the op-ed pages of The New York Times (subscription required) for an America that looked more like the U.S. Army. In that piece, Wright went on at some length pointing out all the wonderful things he found in that institution. Fine, although I certainly know people who spent time in the U.S. Army who saw things a lot differently.

But never mind. The author left out one not-so-inconsequential aspect of the U.S. Army - in fact, the one thing that actually defines the institution. To wit, it’s an organization in which people are expected to shut up and do as they are told. And if they don’t, they are jailed or even, in some circumstances, shot. And their job is to kill.

Do I think American society ought to look more like that? Uh, no.

Now, how do we get from that – which should have been obvious to most readers – to this shrill “you hate the troops” stuff out of Right-Thinking from the Left Coast? My guess is that there are a lot of people on the Right who worship the Pentagon and everything it stands for because they see it as representing the country as a whole. And, well, they love the heck out of their country.

I understand this, but to me, the military has always been less of a mirror image of the country I love than a mirror image of the Post Office I don’t so love – but a Post Office with heavy ordnance. Sure, we need the military to protect ourselves from bad actors abroad, but let’s not lose our perspective. We need construction workers to protect us from big potholes on the road too, but that doesn’t mean I’ll go into a conniption every time I run across someone with a none-too-rosy view of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The observation I made in my original post – that it’s unimaginable that any of our founding fathers would ever even dream of making Wright’s argument – was not off-handed rhetorical flourish. It’s a cold hard fact. James Madison, for instance, considered a standing army “necessary” but “dangerous” and, at the very least, an “inconvenience.” Consider the full quote from Federalist 41:

The liberties of Rome proved the final victim to her military triumphs, and that the liberties of Europe, as far as they ever existed, have with few exceptions been the price of her military establishments. A standing force therefore is a dangerous, at the same time that it may be a necessary provision. On the smallest scale it has its inconveniences. On an extensive scale, its consequences may be fatal. On any scale, it is an object of laudable circumspection and precaution.

And that’s on the mild side of the sentiments we find from other founders regarding the institution the modern Right so tightly embraces. In a letter to Samuel Cooper in 1770, for instance, Benjamin Franklin contended that the lot of a common soldier was worse than that of a slave and that the military was “a devouring monster.” George Washington in his farewell address contended that the military establishment is “inauspicious to liberty” and “particularly hostile to republican liberty.” Benjamin Rush proposed in 1792 that the entry to the Department of War should be inscribed with two captions; “An Office for Butchering the Human Species,” and “A Widow and Orphan Making Office.” John Randolph famously argued from the floor of the 6th Congress that:

The military parade which meets the eye in almost every direction excites the fall of our citizens; they feel a just indignation at the sight of loungers, who live upon the public, who consume the fruits of their honest industry, under the pretext of protecting them from a foreign yoke. They put no confidence, sir, in the protection of a handful of ragamuffins.

There may be statements from some founding fathers echoing John Ashcroft about “letting the eagle soar … with heavy weaponry,” but if so, I’ve never come across them. References to the military as a necessary evil are about as positive a statement as your going to find … from them or me.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, you can have liberty, or you can have missile worship. But you’re unlikely to have both in the long run.