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 Olmsted 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.