The American Public Is Not SEAL Team Six
Last night's State Of The Union Address contained another unfortunate example of the prevalence of militaristic rhetoric in domestic politics.
One of the most powerful moments of President Obama’s speech last night came when President Obama evoked the memory of SEAL Team Six, the unit that hunted down Osama bin Laden and, as we learned this morning, rescued two civilians from Somali pirates at nearly the same time that official Washington was gathering in the Capitol Building for the President’s speech. It framed both the beginning and the end of the speech, actually. Unusually for a State Of The Union, the President started with foreign policy:
We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. (Applause.) For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. (Applause.) For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. (Applause.) Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.
These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.
And then, at the close of the speech more than an hour later, Obama said:
Which brings me back to where I began. Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.
One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter. Just like it didn’t matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates — a man who was George Bush’s defense secretary — and Hillary Clinton — a woman who ran against me for president.
All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job — the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back.
So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.
As James Joyner noted in his SOTU Post Mortem this morning, this is fine rhetoric and great speechcraft but it’s unclear what it actually means in the real world. At some point in their Presidency, every President has made this kind of an appeal to national unity and called on Americans to put aside partisanship for one purpose or another. Then, they fly out of Washington the next day giving a serious of stump speeches to sell their SOTU message during which they take as many shots at the opposition as they can. Obama is doing that himself starting today with a speech in Iowa that starts off a three-day, five state (all of them swing states of course) tour of the country to sell his message. This is not to mention the fact that it is more than a little amusing to kick off a Presidential election year with a speech that derides partisanship. Good luck with that one, Mr. President.
More broadly, though, Max Boot expresses concern over the use of analogies to military service in arguments about domestic politics as well as the President’s Tom Brokaw-like nostalgia for the post World War II era in American history:
[N]ostalgia should not mask the fact that the “Mad Men” world is not one most of us would like to live in today. It was, after all, a world where big institutions-whether big government, big media, big business or big unions-had far more power than they do today. The downside of this arrangement was captured in numerous contemporary critiques such as “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” and “The Organization Man” and “The Lonely Crowd” that were a touchstone for Baby Boomers rebelling against the conformism of the 1950s.
From our standpoint today, there are some good aspects of the 1950s-the hard work, the sense of common purpose-but also much that we would reject, especially the pervasive racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other social attitudes-not to mention the pervasive drinking, smoking, and other bad habits. America today is far more individualistic and far more meritocratic with far less tolerance for rank prejudice and far less willingness to blindly follow the orders of rigid bureaucracies.
Make no mistake: the military works well. But that’s because it’s comprised of volunteers with a mission-defending America. Members of the armed forces are willing to accept privations and hardships, and respond unquestioningly to orders, in a way that civilians will not and should not. Let’s temper our admiration of the military: For all its virtues, it is not a model for the rest of society.
Boot’s first point is self-evident I think. Notwithstanding the praise that the World War II generation has deservedly received thanks largely in part to Tom Brokaw’s books, it’s worth remembering that the 1950s weren’t necessarily the nirvana that they are sometimes portrayed as, especially if you were a member of a minority group. It was odd to hear a Democratic invoking this kind of nostalgia only because it’s usually something you expect to hear from a socially conservative Republican who bemoans the breakdown in “the family” that has supposedly occurred since the halcyon days of Leave It To Beaver. In either case, though, it’s a rather myopic view of the era that papers over the many flaws that Boot points out. In most ways that matter, America is a better place than it was in the 1950s, and that’s partly because we don’t have the kind of mindless “unity” that a culture of conformity creates.
It’s Boot’s second point, though, that I think is most important. Barack Obama isn’t the first President to invoke the qualities that we all admire about the military, the qualities that allow it to get its job done, and argue that the civilian population should emulate it in some respects. For one thing, in the military orders are strictly followed and dissent is unheard of, is this really a model we want for society? Well, maybe if you’re a politician in Washington frustrated by the fact that the messiness of domestic politics makes it difficult to get your agenda enacted you might see the advantages in that, but it’s hardly the kind of society a free individual should want to live in. It would be much more convenient if dissent would just be quiet and everyone would just “work together” to achieve all those important “national objectives, ” wouldn’t it? Perhaps, but that’s not the kind of political system we have, nor is it one we should aspire to.
Of course, much of this is just flowery rhetoric, just as the vast majority of any State Of The Union Address is largely flowery rhetoric. Perhaps it shouldn’t be taken quite as seriously as Boot does. Nonetheless, as I’ve noted before, the prevalence of militaristic rhetoric in American politics is something that helps reenforces the imperialistic view of the Presidency that has come to dominate American politics, and that alone is reason to be concerned about it.