Military Dissent Is Not an Oxymoron: Freeing Democracy from Perpetual War

Military Dissent Is Not an Oxymoron: Freeing Democracy from Perpetual War, by William Astore, former US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel.

The United States is now engaged in perpetual war with victory nowhere in sight.  Iraq is chaotic and scarred. So, too, is Libya. Syria barely exists. After 15 years, “progress” in Afghanistan has proven eminently reversible as efforts to rollback recent Taliban gains continue to falter. The Islamic State may be fracturing, but its various franchises are finding new and horrifying ways to replicate themselves and lash out.

Having spent trillions of dollars on war with such sorry results, it’s a wonder that key figures in the U.S. military or officials in any other part of America’s colossal national security state and the military-industrial complex haven’t spoken out forcefully and critically about the disasters on their watch.

To understand the silence of the military in particular in the face of a visible crisis of war-making, you shouldn’t assume that, from private to general, its members don’t have complicated, often highly critical feelings about what’s going on. The real question is: Why they don’t ever express them publicly?

War in Iraq

At war in Iraq, 2008

As a young Air Force lieutenant in the 1980s the author worked on a research project he loathed. But he did his job and was quiet.

So I buried my misgivings … I remember, in fact, hoping that the F15-ASAT test would go well and that I’d be seen as effective at my job.  And in this I think I was probably pretty typical of military people, then and now.

[The lesson:] mission priorities and military imperatives in such a hierarchical situation are powerful factors in suppressing morality and critical thinking.  It’s so much easier, so much more “natural,” to do one’s job and conform rather than speak out and buck a system that’s not made for the public expression of dissenting views. …

That conformist mentality is difficult to challenge or change, no matter your subsequent rank or position. There’s a sensible reason for all this.  You can’t herd cats, nor can you make a cohesive military unit out of them.  In life and death situations, obedience and discipline are vital to rapid action.

The US military is now exalted and essentially worshiped … as “our greatest national treasure.”

The military has, in fact, become so crucial to Washington that aspiring civilian commanders-in-chief like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump lean on retired generals to anoint them as qualified for the job. …

But at some point, perhaps now, some patriotic dissent is better than complete silence:

The Pentagon has, in a very real sense, become America’s national cathedral. If we’re going to continue to worship at it, we should at least ask for some minimal level of honesty from its priests.  In militarized America, the question of the moment is how to encourage such honesty.

Call it patriotic dissent.  By “dissent” I mean honest talk from those who should know best about the hazards and horrors of perpetual war, about how poorly those conflicts have gone and are going.  We desperately need to encourage informed critics and skeptics within the military and the Complex to speak their minds in a way that moves the national needle away from incessant bombing and perpetual war.

But it is almost impossible, in a socialist borg-like community:

[I]t’s hard for outsiders to imagine just how difficult it is to break ranks when you’re in the military.  So many pressures combine to squelch dissent — everything from feelings of loyalty and patriotism to careerist concerns and worries about punishment. …

Unless you’ve been in the military, you have little idea how all-enveloping and all-consuming such a life can be.  In a strange way, it may be the closest thing to true socialism in America: base housing provided and tied to your rank, government doctors and “socialized” medicine for all, education for your children in base schools, and worship at the base chapel; in other words, a remarkably insular life, intensified when troops are assigned to “Little Americas” abroad (bases like Ramstein in Germany).  For Star Trek: The Next Generation fans, think of Ramstein and similar bases around the world as the Borg cubes of American life — places where you’re automatically assimilated into the collective.  In such a hive life, resistance is all but futile.

This effect is only intensified by the tribalism of war.  Unit cohesion, encouraged at all times, reaches a fever pitch under fire as the mission (and keeping your buddies and yourself alive) becomes all-consuming.

The author details a number of reasons for staying mum, for why there is so little healthy informed criticism of the military. Then:

Some will doubtless claim that encouraging patriotic dissent within the military can only weaken its combat effectiveness, endangering our national security.  But when, I wonder, did it become wise for a democracy to emulate Sparta?  And when is it ever possible to be perfectly secure?