Our Mercenary Troops

William Arkin has created quite a stir with a blog post reacting to a recent NBC report on troops’ frustrations with criticism from the public.

He starts off with a reasonable premise:

I’m all for everyone expressing their opinion, even those who wear the uniform of the United States Army. But I also hope that military commanders took the soldiers aside after the story and explained to them why it wasn’t for them to disapprove of the American people.

Indeed, soldiers work for the public and we need to be careful to beat back the natural tendency of the warrior class to develop a Praetorian Guard mentality. The oft-quoted lines of the fictional Colonel Jessep are quite seductive:

You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post.

Military society can be quite insular even in garrison and it naturally becomes more so in the field. It’s natural for those putting their lives on the line to think they’re special. But we must be careful they don’t adopt the Jessep attitude. The public and its political leaders have every right, even the duty, to question the manner in which our freedom is safeguarded.

It’s a punishable offense under the UCMJ for soldiers to display contempt toward their commander-in-chief. Why, then, is contempt for the president’s boss, the American people, tolerated?

Arkin’s next point is fair enough, too:

These soldiers should be grateful that the American public, which by all polls overwhelmingly disapproves of the Iraq war and the President’s handling of it, do still offer their support to them, and their respect. Through every Abu Ghraib and Haditha, through every rape and murder, the American public has indulged those in uniform, accepting that the incidents were the product of bad apples or even of some administration or command order.

Sure it is the junior enlisted men who go to jail, but even at anti-war protests, the focus is firmly on the White House and the policy. We just don’t see very man “baby killer” epithets being thrown around these days, no one in uniform is being spit upon.

That, of course, is as it should be. Not blaming all soldiers for the bad actions of a few is akin to not blaming all blacks for the crimes of a few. Then again, it wasn’t all that long ago that we did. In Vietnam, the handful of atrocities were held against the military in general. Now, most people blame just the perpetrators–or the Bush administration.

Arkin goes on to argue that giving up his right of free speech is too steep a price to pay to avoid hurting the soldiers’ feelings. I made essentially the same point when I saw the video. He then goes a bridge too far, though, prompting even the likes of Andrew Olmstead to threaten him with physical violence:

But it is the United States and instead this NBC report is just an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary – oops sorry, volunteer – force that thinks it is doing the dirty work. The notion of dirty work is that, like laundry, it is something that has to be done but no one else wants to do it. But Iraq is not dirty work: it is not some necessary endeavor; the people just don’t believe that anymore.

American soldiers are not mercenaries. Yes, they’re paid a decent salary and there are monetary and other incentives offered to get people to enlist and re-enlist. That’s the price of a volunteer force in a free market. They are not, however, offering their services to the highest bidder. They work for the United States of America and only the United States of America.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. INDC Journal» Apologies for Slow Posting Unclaimed Territory» David Brooks, National Spokesman for “Americans” Outside the Beltway» Our Mercenary Troops Homeland Stupidity» Homeland Security “bottom of the federal barrel” Dean’s World» Sargeant In Afghanistan… BuzzMachine» Davos07: My big conclusion QandO» Ethanol, totillas and smog Cox Forkum

  2. Actually, there are incidents of men and women in uniform being spat upon as recently as last weekend’s hippie-fest in DC.

    Ultimately, what grates about Mr. Arkin’s prose is that, once again, we are not allowed to have legitimate disagreements about policy. Inhis eyes, those we don’t agree with his world view must be demonized, ridiculed or treated with contempt.

    Also, your comments on fictional Col. Jessup’s soliloquy are duly noted and have merit, but if I had to choose between Col. Jessup and Lt. Kaffee, I’d take Col. Jessup hands down.

  3. Steven Plunk says:

    Those soldiers are frustrated with baseless criticism that emboldens the enemy and threatens their lives. Those who they criticize know who they are and should listen to the soldiers as much as they listen to people like Arkin.

    Polls, polls, and more polls. Those polls may show dissatisfaction in the war but why are a supposed majority of Americans dissatisfied? Perhaps it’s a lack of results, perhaps it’s because we are not being aggressive enough, perhaps they are frustrated with stupid rules of engagement. I’m sure there are a few out there dissatisfied we haven’t used nukes.

    The point is we can’t keep falling back on polls that don’t get detailed enough to really know what people are thinking. As well we can’t set strategic or tactical policy based upon polls. Polls taken of a people who know little of the intricacies of what’s going on. The poll everyone should be paying attention too was taken two years ago when President Bush was re-elected.

  4. ken says:

    If anyone deserves to be spat upon by the American people it would be charles austin for his contemptible lie.

    On another topic, recognizing the mercenary nature of our military lends understanding to just how our military is sometimes used – the first gulf war being a perfect example of its rent-a-cop capacity.

  5. Edgardo says:

    The Jessup attitude does not imply what you say. It implies that there is no free lunch. Thus, if you don’t like the cost of how safeguarding is being providing to you, you have to look at the alternatives. Clearly Arkin is not happy with the cost of the volunteer force, but he says that he does not believe America needs a draft and he does not mention any other alternative. Thus, his column is useless (apparently his only intention was to insult the soldiers).

  6. Anderson says:

    Didn’t Housman write “Epitaph for an Army of Mercenaries” about the BEF?

    These, in the day when heaven was falling,
    The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
    Followed their mercenary calling
    And took their wages and are dead.

    Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
    They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
    What God abandoned, these defended,
    And saved the sum of things for pay.

  7. Anderson says:

    Edgardo, repeat after me: Jessup was a sociopath. Jessup was a sociopath. Jessup was a sociopath.

    His speech was a ringing defense of siccing his own troops on one of their own, and then ordering them to lie about it in order to save his own sorry ass.

    The Nazis had a lot to say about honor and duty, too.

  8. M1EK says:

    But his last point was critical; and compare/contrast to yours:

    “to question the manner in which our freedom is safeguarded.”

    vs.

    “But Iraq is not dirty work: it is not some necessary endeavor; the people just don’t believe that anymore.”

    Get it? Iraq’s not a threat to our freedom and never was.

  9. Mark says:

    Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Whose gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

    This is the Jessup speech being debated about, for those too lazy to look it up 🙂

  10. Sam says:

    So I guess civilian employees of the government and their unions should also keep their mouths shut.

  11. LJD says:

    I’m not surprised by the mercenary comments, showing just how out of touch with reality some people are on this subject.

    Merriam Webster defines mercenary as:
    one that serves merely for wages; especially : a soldier hired into foreign service

    The reasons for serving are many more than just ‘wages’. Our soldiers joined to serve their country, to better themselves through training, education, and discipline, to provide for their families, to see the world, to give something back to the country that has given them so much,- and oh yeah the money aint bad either.

    They did not join specifically for ‘foreign service’, although they all knew it was a possibility. I would think most of the mwould rether be home drawing nearly the same paycheck, than over there.

    On the talking back, I would say that while technically ‘the people’ are the ‘bosses’ of the Commander in Cheif and subsequently the military, the military does not follow direct orders (rightfully so) from society. A society that has proven itself time and time again to be apathetic, disorganized, undisciplined, ungrateul, self-serving, chaotic,… and so on.

    The bottom line is that without uniformed personnel (read also police, fire, hospitals) there would be no society. Those finding it so easy to dismiss the importance of our military, might soon find themselves doing those distasteful tasks associated with their very survival. Likely not very well either, nor with much zeal as their response to a comparatively minor inconvenience in the scope of human history, has shown.

  12. Edgardo says:

    Anderson: you should repeat many times that there is no free lunch. If you think the volunteer force is too costly (including all the relevant costs), then tell me what you propose so we have something to talk about.

  13. cian says:

    While the nation is no longer divided on the rightness of the Iraq war (a vast majority now agree it was the wrong decision) the divide remains within the army itself. For every soldier who believes in the mission, there’s another who no longer does. No one, not even Bruce McQuain, would suggest such a soldier would not continue to support his fellow troop mates. Its a silly argument

  14. legion says:

    The key to Jessup’s monologue, and this debate (at least as far as the general public is concerned) is that one line:

    I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it.

    Jessup’s sociopathy, as well as his basic inability to be trusted in a position of authority, is defined by that one sentence. Jessup’s position is that the service he & the people under his command provide is so important that they are above any question or reproach in their methods. Boiled down to its essentials, he’s saying “authority must not be questioned”, which is possibly the single most un-American statement that could ever be made. Our nation only exists because of the questioning of unbridled authority.

    As a side note, bear in mind that Jessup’s rant is not given to civilians, but to other serving military officers – admittedly, JAG officers rather than combat troops, but fellow officers nonetheless. Imagine the contempt his character would have shown a civilian who dared question his methods?

  15. My apologies for the grammatical error in the first comment I failed to cleanup when I changed a singular to a plural instance.

    But, what is the contemptible lie I am supposed to have told? That men and women in uniform have recently been spat on by war protestors? You need to pay a visit to Blackfive, Lt. Smash, or, heaven forfend, even Fox News. Just because you don’t want to believe it doesn’t make it so and calling people liars because they note these events is, how shall I say it, contemptible?

  16. Legion, I’m not sure that Col. Jessup’s contempt for civilians would be worse than it was for the JAG officers. I believe his contempt for Lt. Kaffee, Lt. Weinberg, and Lt. Cmdr Galloway was driven by his perception that these junior officers who had never had the responsibility he had were quite clearly standing in judgment of his discipline command decisions. And let’s be honest, Lt. Kaffee was a smarmy little jerk and he consistently acted in a way that Col. Jessup would almost certainly interpret as borderline insubordinate.

    Col. Jessup had issues with legitimate authority over him, as was demonstrated in his comments to the Judge in the courtroom. I just believe that he would probably not make a similar comment to a civilian, even if he personally believed it. Col. Jessup had his flaws, but he also had some virtues and accomplishments that are too easily overlooked in the rush to condemn him. For instance, I was always struck by his words that his job was to make Pvt. Santiago into a good Marine rather than to just shuttle him off to be someone else’s problem. Personally, I wish more leaders thought this way.

    But hey, that’s just my opinion.

  17. Sensible Mom says:

    WAPO’s Blunder…

    I guess to him shut-up and having the military hierarchy he thinks plays mind control with the troops practice said mind control so the troops won’t talk again or make criticisms of the anti-war left are two different things….

  18. Wayne says:

    It amazes me that anytime someone says a liberal speech is doing harm that the liberals claim that they are trying to take away free speech. Liberals have freedom of to say what they want and the rest of society does as will. That includes saying that what liberals say hurt this country. I think the liberals use “the trying to take away free speech” technique as a way to avoid taking responsibility for what they say.

    The only ones that take away free speech are usually the liberals.

    Why is it the only time soldiers are allow to speak is when it fits the liberal agenda? Otherwise it “they need to shut up” or “they are brainwash idiots”.

  19. Frank says:

    Yes, remember that the military “work for the United States of America and only the United States of America”. But also remember they can stop working anytime.

  20. Anderson says:

    If you think the volunteer force is too costly (including all the relevant costs),

    Edgardo, WTF are you talking about? Can you read?

    For instance, I was always struck by his words that his job was to make Pvt. Santiago into a good Marine rather than to just shuttle him off to be someone else’s problem.

    Mr. Austin, sure he *said* that, but did his actions fit his words?

    The susceptibility in this thread to the rhetoric of Jack Nicholson’s Jessup is a reminder that Germans in 1933 weren’t just saps.

  21. Bill's Bites says:

    It’s called “Cojones Envy.” (Multiple updates)…

    I guess when you don’t have what it takes to be a real man all that’s left is to try to drag down those who do. It’s beginning to smell way too much like the ’60s again. …

  22. legion says:

    Charles,
    That’s entirely possible; it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the movie, so I’m not sure. Although yeah – the LT’s attitude & perception were a major character thread. Jessup’s treatment of the private, IMHO, shows a common human failing in that because _Jessup_ saw no other way to deal with Santiago, there _was_ no other way to deal with Santiago, and therefore his treatment was acceptable. That’s why all authority must be open to question…

  23. Spitting…

    WaPo National Security reporter William Arkin blogs:… even at anti-war protests, the focus is firmly on the White House and the policy. We don’t see very many baby killer epithets being thrown around these days, no one in uniform is…

  24. Anderson, I think his words did fit his deeds. Col. Jessup red flagged Pvt. Santiago because he thought that was how he was going to help make him a better Marine. Such rough tactics did usually work with Gitmo Marines, as other Privates testified during the trial. Of course, had Col. Jessup, or anyone else, known that Pvt. Santiago had a medical condition that was causing his stamina problems the entire situation would have been dealt with differently from the beginning. Col. Jessup didn’t red flag Pvt. Santiago to kill him.

    I also believe that Col. Jessup was delivering a lesson to his subordinate officers not to shirk their duties in leading their men. You are, of course, free to disagree with any or all of this. But I think it is a mistake to paint Col. Jessup as an all out monster because of a specific character flaw. You may very well have to be something of a prick to be selected to the NSC as Col. Jessup was supposed to be, but you’d still have to be a very successful prick whose abilities were valued and respected.

  25. Good point. You can’t be a mercenary if you only have one employer

  26. T.W. says:

    I think William Arkin has NO IDEA what he is talking about. I am a military spouse, so let me explain. My spouse just made Seargent. We make barely over $2200.00 a month…before bills. That’s not a lot after car insurance and car payments and phone and internet and food and other things we need. You do the math.
    As for the “incentives” that make up for the poor pay that the soldiers get, our hospital bills are covered but not our dental or any other medical needs such as glasses or contacts, and we pay a small fee every month for these “incentives” anyway. I personally do not think that these soldiers get paid enough for what they do, but they do it anyway, because they are brave and they have made the choice to do this job. However, when they get deployed, they DO NOT have a choice. They go because the government tells them that they have to go. They can get kicked out of the military or face severe criticism and loss of rank if they refuse to deploy and even face a military prison sentence. All the stress and angst and other extremes that they go through during their deployments do not excuse the bad things that they may do, but I assure you that those soldiers pay for their actions. However, most of the soldiers do their jobs and come home to families who have lived every single day of an entire year, and sometimes more, without their loved ones.
    I would like to say that I do not support the Iraq war. However, I DO support my husband and the other soldiers that feel they need to carry out their duty to the military and the United States. Supporting the war and the soldiers are two very different things. I would also like to say that I think anyone who does not know what is going on, meaning having no family members or close friends who are soldiers or who have been a soldier themself, should not make comments on things they know nothing about or should keep their comments to themselves. Or at least don’t criticize the soldiers…criticize George W. Bush. This war was his idea.

  27. Lugo says:

    “Mercenary” is a stupid criticism. Does Arkin think that a draftee army would not be paid? So then they would be mercenaries, too, right?

  28. mishu says:

    Frank, the military cannot ‘stop working at any time’. They can only stop working when they are ordered to stop working.

  29. lily says:

    There are not incidents in the plural of soldiers being spat upon. There is one guy (named something that starts with an “S”) who claimed to have been spat at but his credibility is suspect since the same guy has sought publicity on two other occasions with similar complaints (Digby did the research).

    Some people feel a need to be victimized.

  30. just me says:

    Yes, remember that the military “work for the United States of America and only the United States of America”. But also remember they can stop working anytime.

    Huh? You must not know much about the military.

    #1 the military as a whole can’t stop working, they go and do and keep doing until the CiC says stop. The generals don’t get to tell the civilians in charge to jump in a lake, and if they don’t, nobody else below them does.

    #2 Individuals don’t get the option of quitting anytime they want. Everyone who signs up signs up for an 8 year hitch in some fashion of active, reserve, inactive reserve duty. They don’t get to quit anytime they want. After the 8 year hitch, officers can generally resign their commissions whenever they want, but enlistees sign up for specified amounts of time, and they don’t get to quit.

    And I think the mercenary comment was way below the belt.

    I also think he seems to think that the American people get the right to say whatever the heck they want, but the troops don’t get to say how they feel about it.

    Free speech goes both ways-you can say whatever the heck you want, but your right to say it doesn’t mean you have the right to not be verbally smacked for saying it.

  31. NW Bloggers says:

    William Arkin “inserts” some slightly more moderate comments…

    And I mean that literally.  Like a few other observant bloggers, I was suprised when this post appeared in his side bar:
    A Note to My Readers on Supporting the Troops 

    I swear that since it magically appeared I have seen it move in posi…

  32. William Arkin “inserts” some slightly more moderate comments…

    I will say that it is odd that his post is dated 5:31 am, but the first comment is 547 PM
    ……

  33. lunacy says:

    There has been ONE soldier spat on recently. There have been other incidents that I have read about over the past few years.

    I’m not going to go look them up, but I recall reading of a similar situation in Oregon last year during a protest and another few incidents in California last year or two years ago during another protest. I even recall reading of soldiers getting ambushed and physically assaulted at some of the west coast protests. I’m sure Matt and Scott (blackfive, indepundit) have a better recollection on their blogs.

    And like much crime that goes on in the nation, surely for every incident you HEAR about there must be some that you DON’T HEAR about.

    Lunacy

  34. The magic continues, Arkins new post is now dated 5:31PM…

    His mystery post that last night was dates at 5:31 am, is now dated 5:31 PM

    ……

  35. Steve Verdon says:

    Anderson, I think his words did fit his deeds. Col. Jessup red flagged Pvt. Santiago because he thought that was how he was going to help make him a better Marine.

    Yes, but it killed him, then he acted in ways to cover it up and let two of his marines take the fall for it. I’m sorry, but he is a sociopath and his actions and his words indicate that he is actually a threat to what makes America America.

  36. Fair and balanced appraisal. Nice work.

    I’ve quoted you and linked to you here.