Friday, December 22, 2006


I often use some form of the word "idolatry" to describe the Republican and especially the Christian Right Republican ostentatious praise for the military, both "the troops" and our infallible generals.

Here are two pieces from today that illustrate important aspects of my problem with that whole thing. One is from pundit David Gergen, quoted by  Duncan (Atrios) Black from CNN on 06/21/06:

The president has contended all along in this war that politics would not drive decisions, that his decisions on how many troops and how to deploy them in Iraq would depend upon the commanders on the ground, upon the top military officials and the government.  Now he has staked out a position, at least his aides are staking out a position in favor of a strong surge of American troops into Baghdad.  A decision with which the joint chiefs and the commanders on the ground disagree. S o here we have not just the commander in chief but the politician in chief and the president who has to ask himself the question, does he want to override the wishes of his own generals?  That's a big, tough call.

As I said in my review of H.R. McMaster's book on Vietnam War decision-making, no President is going to long tolerate a situation where his chief military advisers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) are publicly (through leaks or otherwise) dissenting from his military policies. Nor should he.

But that's exactly what's been happening this week, regardless of exactly who has been making the news leaks. The JCS are opposing the "surge" escalation strategy that Cheney and Bush are apparently committed to in the Iraq War.

Yet Cheney and Bush are in a bit of a dilemma about that. Because one of the misguided "lessons of Vietnam" that is especially popular with the blowhard white guys to whom Rush Limbaugh and similar Republican ideologues appeal is that the military wasn't "allowed to win" in Vietnam. The civilians held them back and put too many restraints on them and that's the only reason they lost, the argument goes.

Pandering to that sentiment, Bush and Rummy especially have said over and over and over again that they're doing what their commanders say needs to be done to win. And if they need something other than what they have, all they have to do is ask and they've got it. And if the commanders are not recommending more troops, Bush and Rummy wouldn't think of going against their military commanders.

While Cheney and Bush still have some true believers who will cheer for whatever decision they make on escalation in Iraq, it's hard to believe that this about-face where they are not set to reject their commanders' wise and sacred and wise advice won't intesify the cognitive dissonance that especially good Republican white folks must be feeling right now. It widens the credibility gap, in other words. And while it won't diminish the pretenstions of hardcore authoritarians to be devoted to "honoring" the military, it is a reminder to the reality-based that ultimately, the civilian authorities make military decisions based on a wide range of factors, including their judgment of the enemy's intentions and the possibilities for diplomacy. And that often means rejecting some of the military advice they receive from the JCS - although there are informal ways to avoid have unwelcome written JCS recommendations come to the President and the Secretary of Defense.

I have also argued that popular idolizing of the military has some dark sides, even for the soldiers being "honored". Maybe especially for them. The all-volunteer military has been very popular with both the general public and the officers corps. It has generated an informal but real psychological "deal", in which the military doesn't trouble the public with military conscription, and the public in turn celebrates the generals and the ordinary soldiers alike as Heroes, even if they are technicians on a domestic army base or spend most of their time lobbying for boondoggle weapons systems.

Wesley Clark pointed out in a magazine interview with Duncan Murrell several years ago (Oxford American May/June 2003). Murrell wrote:

The irony, as [Clark] see it, is that while the relationship between the military and the general public has improved since the Vietnam, the experience of actually serving in the military has become less common. The result is a perception of soldiers as the embodiments of ideals - duty, honor, country - reinforced by a sentimentality unsullied by first-handknowledge of soldiering. Such admiration for the military is powerful, but not quite powerful enough to drive the sons and daughters of the middle and upper classes into recruiting offices. "We've been the beneficiaries of that lack of familiarity," Clark says, which has allowed the leaderhsip of the United States to use the military as a symbol, sending soldiers off to wars that don't affect most American families directly by putting their children in harm's way. ...

...[A]mbivalence toward leaders, Clark says, is common in any organization, including the military. But such healthy, educated skepticism is missing when Americans make soldiers into symbols, or when political parties make generals into saviors. This naivete is symptomatic of something very dangerous, in Clark's view. "The paradox is, or the danger is, that when everybody doesn't have an obligation to serve, the costs of service can become diconnected from the rhetoric of governments."

Andrew Bacevich in The New American Militarism (2005) discusses the ways in which a good part of that view of soldiers as being special embodiments of "duty, honor, country" has come from conservative Protestants targeting the military for proselytization.

I also heard him give a speech back in May 2005 in which he also commented that he thought that it's a real problem when people treat soldiers as ideals and stressed that people should keep in mind that soldiers are people just like everyone else.  He also thought this idolatrous attitude (he didn't use the word "idolatry") made it easier for the public to consent to sending them off to kill and die in wars.

I was reminded of that in seeing this post by Murray Waas, the reporter who has done such outstanding work on the Valerie Plame leak scandal: The Wag Time Pet Spa Conspiracy... And a Cancer Survivor's Right to Respect Huffington Post 12/21/06.  The post is a long explanation of his viewpoint in a dispute over a story being prepared about him for the Washington City Paper which goes into his history of having survived cancer in his 20s.  He objects tothe reporters' suggestions that portray him, in Waas' words, "as a person who was so broken by the experience of having cancer, [that he was left] bitter and angry from the experience." He then writes:

But conversely, there are those who have portrayed me as a hero for having been a cancer survivor and for some modest achievements in life. And even though they don't know it, by putting me up on a pedestal, even though they have had good intentions, they have taken away from me a portion of my humanity as well.

Some of that same effect is at work in the idolization of The Troops that we see among the Christian Right and also among some more secular war fans. And one result is the problem both Clark and Bacevich point to: an excessive willingness to see soldiers imagined as comic-book Heroes sent off to a war of choice like Iraq.

I want to go back to the cognitive dissonance Republicans must be feeling right now over the Iraq War and a lot of things connected with it. Sara Robinson at the Orcinus blog writies in All Over But the Shouting 12/21/06 about how rightwing authoritarians, for whom she uses the abbreviation RWA, tend to respond to defeat. I think she's overoptimistic about the decline of the Christian Right, but that's another topic. On RWAs and defeat, she writes:

Because of these beliefs, the first authoritarian response to any failure - a lost election, dropping ratings, or a stymied legislative agenda - is to demand that ever-stronger authority step in to enforce even more draconian standards. At this late hour, when their three-decade-long party is finally showing signs of breaking up, the hardcore RWAs are increasingly the only ones left. Drunk on the hard stuff, this is how they think: The more they lose, the more obstreperously they will insist on doing more of whatever it was they were doing before, back in the days when they were succeeding. ...

Stay tuned. It's only going to get weirder for a while.  We're probably going to see even more Fundie Follies in 2008, as the realization dawns that their social and political clout are fading. The more acutely they feel the loss, the more outrageous their attempts to push old favorite themes to new extremes will become. Which will, of course, only speed the continued loss ofclout and followers, and turn up the volume on the general derision level. Which will, in turn, lead to even stranger pronouncements and more aggressive attempts to ship us all back to the 19th century, the shuddering machinery throwing off bolts and sparks and passengers with every accelerating and doomed orbit. (my emphasis)

Combined with the fear of many senior Cheney-Bush officials about going to prison for various misdeeds and what looks to be an even uglier turn of events in Iraq, this RWA tendency to strike back with more of "the hard stuff" is likely to make 2007 and 2008 two of the nastiest partisan years we've ever seen.

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abrau said...

Wonderfully thoughtful post.

bmiller224 said...

Thanks for stopping by. - Bruce