First Honorable Mention, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
In the United States, soldiers and citizens are all members of the same society. But the warriors have a special responsibility to it.
Military and civilian standards of conduct have diverged widely in recent years, and this split has some potentially damaging consequences for our society. Whether the split began with the Vietnam War, the change to the all-volunteer military, or the surge in professionalism that accompanied the Reagan buildup of the 1980s is a question for a different article. To close that gap and restore solidarity, we must remember our roots, understand our role in society, and work to improve the standing of our fellow citizens.
The United States has a long and distinguished tradition of healthy and vigorous interaction between civilian and military segments of society, but this is a tradition that has ebbed lately. Today's military is held to a higher standard than its civilian counterparts. An officer might lose his career for a breakdown of judgment that took place two decades ago, but the misdeeds of a leader in the civilian world are forgiven as long as he can make the trains run on time. Members of the military have complained—with increasing volume—that what civilians might dismiss with a wink and a grin, the military punishes with legal action and possible dismissal. Some have claimed a double standard exists. They are right—and we should be thankful.
In any military unit, leaders—whether they wear chevrons, stripes, or stars—bear greater expectations of integrity and performance than those they lead. Similarly, the military should welcome the responsibility of civilian expectations. As leaders of our military, we must recognize and embrace these expectations, and work to ensure they are never lowered. Furthermore, we must accept that problems and shortcomings in society are our responsibility as leaders, and that it is our responsibility to see that those problems get solved. I do not suggest that we attempt to tackle social ills in our roles as military personnel, but as citizens. There is grave danger in the suggestion expressed by several servicemen in Thomas Ricks's Making the Corps that "we [the military] are at war with American values." Rather than deride civilians for allowing society to atrophy, we must accept that as members of that society—as leaders of that society—the responsibility for failure is ours as well. We must acknowledge that the values that guided the United States to greatness have eroded in recent years, and that as leaders, we are responsible for combating that erosion.
A Redefined Nation
Since the late 1960s, our nation has undertaken a dramatic exercise in redefinition. The 1960s witnessed reforms that for millions realized the promise of this nation's charter. Yet for all of their social progress, the 1960s ushered in an era of self-justification and victim worship. On a scale far more massive than ever before in U.S. history, those with the financial means to avoid military service did so, with grave consequences for the nation's social unity. The student deferments of the Vietnam War established a dangerous precedent of pursuing personal rights at the expense of society's right.
For most of this nation's history, attention to civic duty guided many of society's leaders. Society expected its young men to perform a few years of service and then return to civilian life, ready to return to uniform should the country need them. Wary of standing armies, the founding fathers sought to maintain the tradition of citizen-soldiers, lest the military adopt the oppressive posture of its European counterparts. President George Washington represents the ideal of the citizen-soldier: Taking up arms only in times of need, and otherwise engaging in peaceful pursuits for the betterment of his country. Military experience was but one link in a long chain of national service, and great leaders, including Washington, Lincoln, Truman, Kennedy, and Bush, were among the hundreds of thousands of veterans who lived this dedication.
The roots of the U.S. tradition of civic duty reach back far beyond President Washington. In his day, notes presidential biographer Forrest McDonald, "[Washington] was likened to the ancient Roman Cincinnatus, the noble farmer who saved the Republic from the Aequians and then voluntarily laid down the mantle of power." Cincinnatus, appointed general of Roman troops, turned down popular requests to become leader of Rome so he could return to his farm, his duty done. The ancient Greeks, too, placed enormous emphasis on public service, considering it essential to the vitality of society. Their term for one who ignored his obligation to the community was idiotes, the linguistic ancestor of the English word reserved for the particularly dim. For much of U.S. history, military service has been a duty that called to all men equally. While we will not do away with our modern volunteer military any time soon, we must recognize that we are part of the tradition of the citizen-soldier, and that the country benefits from the common thread of military service by people of diverse groups and from different regions.
When the country called, Americans from all classes, backgrounds, and ideologies served together. The shared experience of time in uniform often was the only common bond between people of dramatically different circumstances. Military experience was a unifier that ensured understanding and respect among citizens for generations. Presidents Bush and Kennedy were sons of some of the most powerful families in U.S. politics when they fought in the Pacific. Baseball great Ted Williams sacrificed five years to serve in World War II and the Korean War. The remarkable thing today about the service of these men was that at the time it was unremarkable. However, since the student deferments of Vietnam and the transition to an all-volunteer force, fewer citizens feel compelled to serve. Today, the military draws its members from a far narrower slice of society, adding to the strong sense of elitism developed by our return from the lows of the mid-1970s.
After years of toil and sacrifice by the post-Vietnam generation of military leaders, the United States rightfully takes great pride in the high level of professionalism and commitment of its armed forces. In the midst of this resurgence, though, there is potential for the development of a military social caste, as more and more service members are the children and siblings of veterans. For those without some form of direct military legacy, entering the service is far less attractive, and the prospect of a military so culturally isolated from the citizenry it serves is troublesome. To protect itself against this trend, the military needs to reflect a broader range of society—a difficult task made harder by the growing gap between behaviors acceptable to today's youth and to today's military.
We are proud of our professionalism and excellence. Because of longer commitments, higher levels of training, and higher standards for entry, individual service members are highly proficient at their jobs. The image of a disciplined Sailor, Airman, Marine, or Soldier often is held up in direct contrast to the widely accepted image of civilians of the same age group. We uphold our higher standards of conduct and discipline as defining features that set us apart from our civilian contemporaries. While there is nothing wrong with that attitude on the surface, it does touch on some potentially troubling issues. We should not take pride in the growing chasm between civilian and military, because in the long run this trend represents a profound threat to our national well-being.
There are three routes before us. If we defend the status quo, this trend will continue, and the military will become isolated from the rest of society. Inevitably, resentment will deepen on both sides. The second option is to change along with our civilian counterparts. But as professionals, we cannot lower standards because to do so not only would go against all of our training but also would jeopardize everything for which we have struggled for the past 20 years. We must do our part to repair our fraying social fabric. This responsibility falls to us as citizens concerned with the well—being of our nation—and for one another.
Because of our experience as military leaders, we have an obligation to apply that leadership to the society that has given so much to us. As noted last fall in the Atlantic Monthly, it is ironic that today's overwhelmingly politically conservative military enjoys the fruits of one of the most liberal social-support programs of the century. The Department of Defense administers its own version of President Johnson's Great Society-providing for food, housing, medical care, and retirement benefits for its members all at great cost to the rest of the population, which does not enjoy such guarantees. The old saying, "Of those to whom much is given, much is expected," certainly applies here. We in the military hold an obligation to employ our leadership and experience for those who provided so much for us.
What We Can Do
How do we apply what we have learned? When we return to civilian life, be that after three or thirty years, we must remember the lessons of responsibility, accountability, and integrity we learned during our time in uniform. If we truly believe what we say, then each of us will return to civilian circles with the confidence and can-do spirit demanded of us in our current roles. This obligation hardly requires each of us to run for president—it does, however, demand that we challenge ourselves to improve the communities in which we live. Maybe that means volunteering to help people learn to read, or maybe that means running for local dogcatcher. In business, education, politics, law enforcement, art, medicine, or whatever it is we do, when we leave the military, we must seek out leadership positions and responsibility in our civilian lives so that we can have the ability to correct what we see as wrong within our communities. Whatever the face of this obligation, we who hold this special trust and confidence of our countrymen must take what we have learned and apply it to solving the very serious problems of our society: racism, poverty, inequity, and cynicism. If we do not seek out these positions, those who lack the values we treasure will do so instead, and will lead us astray.
As an example: By now, we have heard all we ever would want to hear about Air Force First Lieutenant Kelly Flinn and her affair with the husband of an Air Force enlisted woman. After her chain of command confronted her with knowledge of the affair, she denied any connection to the man—a position she later reversed, citing her true love for him. Perhaps more disturbing than this B-52 pilot's total lack of personal integrity and her disregard for the Uniform Code of Military Justice is the fact, according to a recent article appearing in the Navy Times, that Flinn hopes to run for Congress.
The challenge before us is truly daunting. To overcome it we must recognize that our sense of elitism and pride in our abilities exposes us to the dangers of isolating ourselves from the rest of society. It is entirely proper that we are proud of our service, but we must remain mindful that pride is one of the seven deadly sins. To meet this challenge, we must be alert to the growing social schisms between civilians and ourselves. Several articles and incidents in recent months have highlighted the tendency of both military and civilians to view one another as "extreme" or "slovenly." We must bear in mind that this schism exists not between the armed forces and society, but between two groups of the same vibrant society—a society that thrives on vigorous public debate and that is founded under the motto of e pluribus Unum.
While we still are in uniform, we must focus on the assigned mission—providing for the national defense. We cannot be distracted from this effort, but in zealously pursuing that goal we cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of society.
Our country is at a crossroads. The last three decades have witnessed the deterioration of commitment to the whole and the rise of a selfish breed of individualism and disregard for the common good. A house divided against itself cannot stand. There is no problem facing our country that cannot be dealt with by proper leadership. In this time of unspoken crisis, that leadership must come from us—the soldier-citizens.
After graduating cum laude from Harvard University, First Lieutenant Brown was commissioned in 1995 and graduated from The Basic School in 1996 and the Artillery Officer’s Basic Course in 1997. He was assigned to Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, and attached as forward observer, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, for WESTPAC 2-97 with 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) on board the USS Peleliu (LHA-5).