How to Join the Priesthood

Richard Cohen puzzles today over how the US military has become a ‘priesthood’ and hauls out nearly every tired, ignorant saw about the military except the one about military intelligence being an oxymoron.

Sorry, Richard, but you indict only yourself in this missive. I’m going to have to answer your blog post point by point, so let’s start with your headline: the US knows all it needs to know of war. Many know far too much if you ever visit Walter Reed. And defending our country (in my book) definitely extends to ensuring that the common citizen does not have to learn much about war. Or its horrors.

Vets returning from Vietnam were indeed spit upon. Here in CA (CA is outside the beltway, Richard) you can still find lots of people who reminisce fondly of having done just that.

Yet one was an army of the people, draftees and such, and the other is an army of volunteers, strangers to most of us.

Strangers to you, you mean. Many of us know them and love them. Since you admit they are strangers, however, you go on to say that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’?

No more. I sometimes think I am the only person around who has been in the military. This is because most people I know are college-educated professionals, many of them writers.

Interesting admission. So even though you served for a short time in the reserves, you admit you are a member of the class (even if you personally did not get an exemption) who got college exemptions and made service in the military during Viet Nam more of a class issue. Please continue with your narrative.

The military of today is removed from society in general.

Removed from your society, you mean. You certainly are doing a great job of informing us of the limitations of your social circles. And your experience. Southerners volunteer for service, to their credit. Northeasterners can too, anytime they wish. Of course, they may not be smart enough to qualify these days.

This is a military conscripted by culture and class – induced, not coerced, indoctrinated in all the proper cliches about serving one’s country, honored and romanticized by those of us who would not, for a moment, think of doing the same. You get the picture.

I certainly do get the picture. Clearly. And the military you and I served in was not conscripted by culture and class? Need I mention those Viet Nam era college deferments again? And you don’t sound as if you are honoring and romanticizing those warriors you would not, for a moment, consider joining. And if serving one’s country is just a cliche, then you should be a politician, not a scribbler.

The other problem is that the military has become something of a priesthood. It is virtually worshipped for its admirable qualities while its less admirable ones are hardly mentioned or known. It has such standing that it is awfully hard for mere civilians – including the commander in chief – to question it.

Like any priesthood, there is a process of admission. It looks like you have already declared yourself and yours unwilling to pay that price of admission. So the mysteries of that priesthood will remain unrevealed to you.

Eisenhower warned of the Congressional-military-industrial complex. The part of his warning we have ignored is the part that afflicts us the worst today!

but now the political cupboard of combat vets is bare and there are few civilian leaders who have the experience, the standing, to question the military

…and that was exactly whose choice? Did the military conspire to exclude these leaders? Did any of these leaders ever, at any point in their careers, take time out to consider just what might outfit them properly for leadership? Hmmmmm.

We kill coldly, for reasons of policy

Yes, we do. Know a better way or reason to wage war? Ever read you some Sun Tsu or Clausewitz?

War is too important to be left to the generals.

Which is why it isn’t. I can’t think of a single US war that was started by a general, can you? All of our wars have been started by civilians or the enemy as I recall. George Washington established the precedent, and of all the policies handed down to us by the founding fathers, civilian control of the military is probably the ideal that has suffered the least. And I might note that it is the military that kept that ideal intact. Civilians in government these days frequently have to be told about this because they don’t know about this principle.

Richard, I’m sure that your college-educated writer friends inside the beltway will congratulate you on your cogent and trenchant views. The rest of us know you a little better, too.

You don’t even have to tap your heels together three times to become an initiate into the priesthood you seem to deplore. You simply have to believe. Believe enough to take that one step forward and raise your right hand. Voluntarily. Not as a ‘coerced’ dodge do avoid regular service.

Once you’ve done that, you are a member of the priesthood for the rest of your life.

Don’t envy a priesthood that you actually want no part of. You have elected to exclude yourself and now you whine?

Update: I have been profoundly embarrased when field grade officers and generals addressed me as ‘Sir’. It feels like an inversion of the proper protocol. But it’s also the miracle that makes our military the best in the world. These officers realize that they work for the civilians. Clinton and Obama both exhibit(ed) profound discomfort at being manifestly unfit to command the world’s greatest military. Yet that very military allowed/allows itself to be commanded by them. The fact that they never bothered to outfit themselves for that command was whose oversight?

If the military are a priesthood, Richard, then you are a member of the godhead that they serve: civilian society. I sense that you, like Obama and Clinton, are manifestly and profoundly uncomfortable with the moral inversion that allows such a splendid instrument to be handled by such grubby hands.