Thursday, November 11, 2010

Honoring veterans

When we talk about the military as an institution it's important to distinguish between the subjective motives of people in the military and the objective function of a military within a particular society.

One of the underlying characteristics of the United States military is the presumption that it exists to advance "American values" around which there is broad social consensus: values like "freedom," "liberty," and "democracy." Though many who join the military do so owing precisely to a lack of "freedom" in economic terms, even these individuals can be counted amongst a larger group who accept this ideological premise, more often than not. Because military service is rewarded in cultural terms on the basis of "service to society," there is a disincentive to call into question the basis of one's reward: if the objective function of the military is likely to undermine subjective preferences about why people serve, it will not be examined.

Whether or not the US military advances "democracy" around the world is a matter that can be evaluated independently of the fact that it makes this claim. The criteria is straightforward: if the US military conforms to the preferences of the societies it impacts, it may be possible to make such an argument. It is immaterial here whether the US military conforms to the preferences of US citizens. Only those primarily affected by a particular authority are in a position to legitimate its rule.

Generally speaking, modern militaries are not constituted in such a way that makes them democratically accountable to the communities they affect. National militaries primarily exist to impose the authority of one nation on that of another. Because the US military is not exceptional in this regard, we begin with the assumption that the US military does not function to advance democracy, but to instead project internationally the authority of whatever groups presently hold US domestic power. If we incorporate into our discussion a class analysis of US domestic power, we will quickly discover that it diverges in important ways from any democratic distribution itself.

Accountable only to a small minority of US domestic interests, is it not more honest and respectful to veterans and service people to describe the US military as an obstacle to democratic aspirations, and to thank them for their efforts when they try to address this? In listening to them carefully, we may be surprised to find that they often do.


what the Tee Vee taught said...

I find myself — quite frequently — repeating the thoughts I read here.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I've never had enough superlatives to describe this site. I'm very very grateful, JRB.

I know you don't go in for tidy, bullet-pointed reform lists, but I'm curious what you think about conscription, or perhaps some kind of national militia system. Of course, there's an element of coercion that you might disagree with. But I'm pretty sure that moral disgraces like our Iraq adventure would never have happened if we had a draft. Also, widespread exposure to the military as it actually is might go a long way towards deflating the "warrior" mystique that infects so many History Channel Caesars.
-- sglover

Jim H. said...

Another way of looking at the problem is that the military is often seen as the extension of our high school football team (or name your sport). We, the fans, are supposed to cheer them on b/c they represent "our side".

This conditions us early on to the presumption upon which you base your post.

What happens when, as under GWB, we begin privatizing the military function? There is no longer the same let's call it 'moral' compunction for us to support them. Unless, that is, we've become a totally militarized society, and our economy is based and ultimately dependent on the military function for its growth. Which, again, we have been in danger of becoming over the last few year.

Extricating our economy from its military dependency is an enormous and lengthy task—Herculean, if you will. It involves a moving away from imperial aim—again, not a given.

That being said, it's hard to brand individual soldiers, many if not most of whom have little more than a HS education and who believe they're just "going out for the team", with complicity in the larger function.

Those who, as you suggest, manage to achieve some consciousness of the overall role of the military in our society and try to address its anti-democratic tendencies are, indeed, to be supported.

I cannot condemn those who don't achieve enlightenment, though. The obstacles are simply too great.

Jim H.

JRB said...

what the Tee Vee taught:

I hope you're cool with that!


Thanks -- it's good hearing from you, too!

The problem with drafts in class societies, of course, is their class character. I would support a draft which draws equitably from all members of the community -- i.e. advocate for it as a corollary to class struggle.

If a community believes strongly enough in the need for a military function, they should take equal part in negotiating its administration like anything else.

Jim H.:

Yes! Thanks for the elaboration and clarification. Your emphasis is well-taken.