James Fallows’ recent cover story in The Atlantic, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” has brought much needed attention to how the U.S. military is treated. Fallows describes the general public and our politicians as being unable to take the military or its troops seriously and of having an unnecessarily “reverent but disengaged” attitude towards those who serve as well as the establishment as a whole.
Photo Credit to Author
This article also struck a very real chord of truth with me and I agree with its call for more serious engagement of the military by the public. A question I hear often from those who wish to engage me on my time in the military beyond the normal “Thank you for your service,” is how I feel about such praise. I understand that the vast majority of people mean well when they say it. I’m aware of the way Vietnam veterans were treated and grateful that our current time doesn’t recreate that experience. But truthfully, I hate the praise. It makes me uncomfortable. People don’t thank others in public service, such as teachers, firefighters, and counselors the same way. And I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the military. I don’t need to be thanked, nor do I think I should be.
I wouldn’t ever say such a thing to someone who thanked me. Fallows’ article, though, expresses very much what I have often wanted to say to people. Not every soldier or Marine is a hero, just as every teacher is not a hero. Everyone has experienced a couple of teachers in their lifetime who were horrible at their job. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced at least as many people in the military who fit that bill. There are also real dangers to calling people heroes so indiscriminately. I don’t think anyone becomes a teacher in order to receive public adulation. But I saw younger members of the military who joined for that reason.
I believe that many people would like to take the military more seriously or criticize the Defense Department but don’t for two reasons. One is because of the fear of a political backlash. This backlash does exist, it’s unfortunate, and it doesn’t quite make sense. We are able to criticize the education system without being accused of attacking teachers. Why can’t it be the same with the military and the troops? I think the problem lies in the political environment we have created. It is another perverse effect of the culture that Fallows describes in his article.
The more significant reason for this lack of criticism, though, is because people are not personally comfortable with doing the critiquing. How can I criticize the military if I’ve never served? To that question, I again bring up the education system. How is it that I hear public criticisms of our schools all the time from people who have never taught? The immediate difference is that everyone has gone through the school system, has some personal experience that they feel they can draw upon. People also have no problem regularly criticizing other things they have no experience with. But I think this difference is mostly explained by the knowledge that a poor school system will negatively affect society as a whole, and may one day even hurt our own children. We need to feel the impact of our decisions in order to fully engage us. We need skin in the game.
How should the country accomplish this? I certainly don’t think we should bring back a draft. I don’t even necessarily think that more people need to serve in the military or that a more diverse group of people need to make up the ranks. One policy that I have proposed for years is that all funding for direct military engagements should come from a direct tax. If the public really felt how much the wars of the past decade cost, we would have got out of them earlier or carried them out differently. This idea may be impractical or fraught with unintended consequences but Fallows, for the most part, doesn’t have a great answer either. Just that more engagement is necessary from the general public. I agree; that’s a start. Fallows’ article does an admirable job of beginning the conversation. And that is as much of a public service as anything.