In the last half century, more U.S. Ambassadors than generals and admirals have died in the line of duty.
“Contrary to popular perceptions, diplomats, aid workers and civilian contractors on the battlefield arguably expose themselves to more danger on a daily basis than most members of the military serving in combat support assignments. But they receive none of the credit and few of the benefits that the latter do.”
A new television show in the United States called “Stars Earn Stripes” puts various B-grade “celebrities” through military training in order to illustrate what it’s like to serve in the most elite units in the U.S. military.
This show might not have been a bad idea immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, when it seemed as if most Americans were largely ignorant of the roles and responsibilities of their military and its elite units. Such a show might have prompted more Americans to enlist in the military rather than follow the advice of their president and shop at the mall.
Now, though, in an era in which Navy SEALs star in their own feature films and the White House collaborates with movie producers to re-enact the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the whole exercise seems unhealthy — just another way for American society to put its military on a praetorian pedestal.
Earlier this summer, I penned two columns on wartime civil-military relations in the United States and came to the conclusion that, despite some handwringing to the contrary, elected decision-makers and their military counterparts in Washington have actually been working effectively and appropriately. On the whole, I argued, civil-military relations were quite healthy.
That is the good news. The bad news is that American society as a whole has developed a dysfunctional relationship with its men and women in uniform. The relationship has grown into a bizarre form of hero-worship, where servicemen and women are considered to be some kind of über-citizen more deserving of rights than the average, nonserving citizen. Andrew Bacevich’s “The New American Militarism,” which might have seemed alarmist when it was published in 2005, looks prescient in 2012.
On the one hand, it is good and right that a society lifts up those who put themselves in harm’s way to serve a greater good. But when it comes to the U.S. and its military, things have truly gotten out of hand. Able-bodied U.S. soldiers in prime physical condition now board airplanes in the United States before mothers with small children. Perhaps even worse, it seems that only veterans notice how ridiculous this is. The new G.I. Bill, passed by the Congress in 2009, makes the U.S. taxpayer responsible for the education of the sons and daughters of highly paid general officers, yet most citizens living in a new age of austerity do not ask why. And a member of the U.S. House of Representatives has even gone so far as to argue that military servicemen might deserve the right to vote more than the average citizen.
This is obscene. And the absurdity of it all is thrown into stark relief when we compare things with the way we treat other public servants. Consider, for a moment, Ragaei Abdelfattah, an Egyptian emigrant to the United States who was killed last week in Afghanistan while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Abdelfattah will not be remembered in the way we remember fallen uniformed servicemen, and his family will likely struggle to receive even a fraction of the benefits that would be given to the family of a fallen soldier.
All too often, in fact, USAID workers in Afghanistan are left to buy their own life insurance and worry about whether or not they are killed on “duty hours” so that their family receives it. The families of these fallen civilians will not have veterans service organizations fighting on their behalf on Capitol Hill to secure their benefits.
Contrary to popular perceptions, diplomats, aid workers and civilian contractors on the battlefield arguably expose themselves to more danger on a daily basis than most members of the military serving in combat support assignments. But they receive none of the credit and few of the benefits that the latter do.
For the sake of argument, perhaps the way we treat these public workers is how it should be. After all, diplomats, aid workers and civilian contractors in Afghanistan all serve voluntarily. They all provide a service and are compensated financially in exchange for their service. This is, above all, a labor transaction.
But if that’s the case, how are soldiers or Marines serving in a professional military any different?
The unhealthy relationship between American society and its military derives from our decades-long inability to decide whether those who serve in the military are performing a public service or whether they are instead embarking on a profession. This ambiguity has endured since the beginning of the all-volunteer military after the Vietnam War.
If the military is a service, then we can and should expect those who serve to do so humbly and for little reward, in exchange for the grateful thanks of their nation. We might provide compensatory benefits on the back end for the families of those killed and for those wounded or injured while serving. If the military is a profession, by contrast, then we should expect those who choose this profession to provide a contractually obligated service in exchange for pay and benefits.
Either way, the policy implications are the same. If veterans of a professional all-volunteer force have simply provided services to the public in exchange for compensation, then we veterans deserve the same benefits provided to other public servants — no more, no less. If the military, by contrast, is a truly selfless service, than veterans should be among the first in these times of austerity to lead by example and accept fewer public benefits. At the very least, we should be helping that mother with kids onto the airplane ahead of us.
Rather than choose between these two visions of military service, however, we Americans have opted for a middle option whereby we have a professional military in which men and women provide a public service — like police officers or emergency medical technicians — but are elevated to the highest echelons of publicly bestowed honor. This ambiguity hinders our ability to make even basic reforms to the military pay and benefits that will soon cripple the defense budget. And it contributes to the creation of a praetorian guard that threatens rather than protects the fabric of our society.
Andrew Exum is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and teaches a course in low-intensity conflict at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He blogs at Abu Muqawama. His WPR column, Abu Muqawama, appears every Wednesday.
1. The Death Race Board met with the Governing Body last night. You are screwed. You have been betrayed and you will pay for the mistakes of a few. There are a few people who have failed to turn in their article. If they do not complete this task everyone will be swimming. Athletes who fail to do article will still do 12 mile swim. We will be sending you the list of the individuals that did this to you.2. New mandatory gear list – pink bathing cap, certified life jacket, a black compression shirt, needles, thread, and a clipping from a Bonzai Tree.3. The race will start Friday morning at Killington Peak. If you start late it’s your problem but please understand you will miss the first cut off.4. Plan on staying until Tuesday. Adjust your travel plans.5. Please submit the forms you received from the State of Vermont. These forms must be turned in by Friday at the end of the business day. Please fax them to the State office as you won’t be able to race unless they have the forms from each athlete with the signed waiver.
“Honestly, this close to the race all I would suggest is make sure you stay healthy, and show up to the race as well rested as you possibly can (meaning the 2-3 days before the race, be as lazy as possible). Aside from that, don’t let the “epicness” stress you out. Just go have fun.
As a side note, anyone who finishes the race in under 24 hours wins a 100k and anyone who finishes in under 36 hours wins 50k. That pretty much guarantees that the race will be longer than 36 hours. Picture the scene: the HD makes it to the finish line in 23 hours. The race directors say, “Before you can cross the finish line, you have to do 14 hours of jumping jacks…” FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!
The HD emailed Joe Decker, the 2010 and 2011 champion, who offered this advice: “The main thing is never quit and don’t let them get inside your head. Be sure to drink enough, eat enough, take plenty of electrolytes, take care of your feet and most importantly your crotch!haha…Serious use plenty of bodyglide. That’s about it! Have fun!”
Some extra advice from the champ here: “Don’t think. In this thing, thought is a killer. If you think about consequences, if you think about retribution, if you think about what’s going to happen, you’re going to fuck yourself. JUST DO; don’t fucking think. Become robotic and don’t fucking even think, no thoughts in your head whatsoever outside of fucking ‘just do the task, do the task.’ If he say cut your own nuts off and eat them, do the task.”
World Championship Spartan Death Race 2010 Montage
File this one under Say it isn’t so! Investigative news program 1 Hour has accused humanitarian Greg Mortenson of fudging certain aspects of his memoir Three Cups of Tea as well as financially mismanaging his charity, the Central Asia Institute.
Both Three Cups of Tea and Mortenson’s second book, Stones into Schools, are amazing books. The HD says never let the truth interfere with a good story! Look, it is always difficult to recall events that happened over a decade ago in journalistic detail. One’s mind is always inclined to remember things differently than how they actually happened. What up, James Frey’s A Million Little Lies! But if you’re going to write a memoir from memory alone, it’s best to go the What Is the What route.
However, the financial mismanagement aspect to the 60 Minutes piece is far more serious. Very, very disappointing if true. The HD is not only fluent in Latin, but has also seen enough West Wing to know: “Corruptio optimi pessima”. Corruption of the best is the worst.
The HD is inclined though to let this one play out. It will be interesting to see if donations drop to CAI as a result of this story. Stay tuned.
In an ever increasing sign of tough economic times, please enjoy this video of Czech President Václav Klaus ransacking and pillaging the office supplies of the Republic of Chile. (H/T to the The Occidental Oriental)
No moral judgements from the HD on the cheeky thievery. Rather, a criticism on such a poor attempt! PROTIP: After nicking the luxurious pen, the Honorable Klaus should have at least reached into his other pocket and put in the box a *GASP* BIC pen!