During our most recent war in Iraq, I was dispatched to Camp Ripley as the leader of a seven-person Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry team. Our assignment was to train a company of Army National Guard soldiers in the basics of wildland firefighting. We spent three saturated days working with the troops, some of them combat veterans. We employed live fire — flames, not ammunition — to enhance the sessions. In the midst of those exercises, the company’s captain pulled me aside to express his appreciation. “You know,” he said, “we don’t really consider you guys civilians.”
The statement was both flattering and disturbing. On one hand, it was obviously beneficial to the training environment that we enjoyed a rapport. Earlier in the day, a young private had addressed me: “Sir! We’re having fun, sir!” On the other hand, my fire colleagues and I were indeed civilians, and made no claim to the contrary.
The subtext of the captain’s remark was that people he deemed civilians would’ve had less, if any, credibility. For me the episode raised — not for the first time — a concern about the militarization of American society, and most particularly, the emergency services.
Firefighters, emergency medical personnel and law enforcement officers are public servants, and significant numbers of them are volunteers. They are not ensconced in camps or on bases, but are fully enmeshed in the civilian community, subject to civil laws and norms, not military law and discipline. There is a line of demarcation, but that line seems blurred. Recruitment ads for the National Guard stress flood response and firefighting.
Lately we’ve become aware of the exponential growth and routine use of SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) teams. Local police have access to armored vehicles, heavy machine guns, grenade launchers and other trappings of the armed forces. Though there is occasional need for equipment beyond a standard-issue sidearm or stun gun, any citizen should be concerned about heavily armed police behaving like commandos. It’s a truism that whatever tools you possess will tend to be employed. If you own an armored combat vehicle, you need to train with it. If you train with it, it’s only natural to want to use it, and to find — or even invent — a means to do so.
There’s no weaponry in the fire service, but increasingly I see military values being inculcated into training, and thus into operations. In the wildland arena, for example, there are a series of leadership courses produced by the NWCG (National Wildfire Coordinating Group) that borrow heavily from the military. Recommended reading and reference lists include many combat titles. Preferred instructors for some of these courses are retired special operatives such as Army Rangers and Navy SEALs.
Obviously there are similarities between the armed services and the emergency services. Both have chains of command and, often, rank. Both professions are dangerous, and both deal with death, injury and destruction. Many emergency workers wear uniforms, including, sometimes, a dress uniform. Police officers, firefighters and medics who die in the line of duty are routinely celebrated in language and ceremony reminiscent of combat casualties. A popular book for fire officers (and for corporate CEOs) is “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese warrior/guru. None of this is wrong or alarming per se, but in the context of 14 years of war, my comfort level is eroding.
It may be that our zeitgeist backdrop of constant conflict is partly the result of the all-volunteer military. It’s likely true, as senior officers maintain, that current soldiers are the best we’ve ever fielded, but there are costs. One is that the concept of “citizen soldiers” has been replaced with “professional specialists.” Our troops are now self-selected career people with a skill set society can routinely access — not unlike engineers, programmers and, yes, police. “Be all you can be” meshes the civilian and military spheres in an antiseptic, no-body-bags kind of way, and the quasi-capitalist message is clear: The military is just another growth opportunity for individuals and the economy. Since the elimination of the draft, we have no unwilling (by definition) combatants, no servicemen complaining about “Catch-22,” no families mourning a dead soldier who was forced into war on pain of prison.
Such a standing army was precisely the fear of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. The world has changed since 1782, and every nation has the right of self-defense, but the framers understood that if you have an army you will use it. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson couldn’t anticipate nuclear weapons, global terrorism, and our oceanic isolation becoming moot, but they did grasp human nature.
A few years ago I tried to engage an active-duty Navy SEAL in a political discussion about Iraq and Afghanistan, places where he’d served more than once. He simply wasn’t interested. “I don’t care about that stuff,” he said. “If there’s a war, I want to be in it, that’s all.” The perfect imperial soldier? A correct and healthy outlook for a professional warrior?
Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler spent 34 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, retiring in 1931. He was twice awarded the Medal of Honor, and served in Mexico, China, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the nations of Central America, Cuba, and in France during World War I. In a 1933 speech, he said, “War is just a racket.” Detailing his extraordinary military career, he elaborated: “I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests. … I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. … I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers. … I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests. … In China I helped to see that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. … Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
Old-fashioned colonialist history? Maybe, but would we have twice invaded Iraq if it did not possess substantial oil reserves? I don’t know, but it’s a question worth posing. Our initial incursion into Afghanistan in November 2001 was a direct strike against the Osama bin Laden network and the Taliban who hosted it, and in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was a justified act of self-defense. It was a quick and spectacular success. Should it have ended there? Hindsight bias recommends it.
An interesting aspect of our relationship with military power is that there’s a historical case to be made for the “military/democracy complex.” In ancient Athens, acknowledged birthplace of political democracy, one of the factors in its creation was the hoplite infantry that comprised the famous Greek phalanx. A crucial need for personnel opened up the ranks to almost all of society, not just warrior elites, and was an important spur to social equality, and thus to democracy. In the contemporary United States, it’s worth noting that racial integration on a large scale first took place in the military, albeit by presidential order.
It is well that we are not blaming the rank-and-file service members for our wars in the Middle East and southwest Asia, as was too often the case with Vietnam. It is well that PTSD is recognized and attempts are made to treat it. It is well that the shortcomings of the Department of Veterans Affairs are being addressed. A just society owes a concrete debt to those damaged by combat prosecuted in our name.
But it is not well that we tend to cede moral authority about war to veterans, that many civilians are reluctant to speak out if they “haven’t been there.” During World War I, British warrior/poet Wilfred Owen set the tone for civilian comment about combat soldiers when he wrote (to the folks at home): “Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not … .”
When I went to Camp Ripley to train the soldiers, I drove my personal vehicle. The bumper was festooned with a sticker that read “Impeach Bush.” I wondered if it was appropriate, on an Army base, to display such sentiment against the commander in chief? I taped over the sticker, worried about the sensibilities of the troops. After all, I wasn’t one of them. Until I lunched with a sergeant who actually grimaced at the PX television screen when Donald Rumsfeld appeared at a news conference.
Every taxpayer and voter has a stake in what our military does and how it does it, but when there is not a personal connection, our sense of duty is diluted. That was one advantage of the draft. When almost every family had a person serving in the armed forces, and/or in combat — or at least the potential of such — the citizenry was vitally engaged. It’s more difficult for the U.S. government to wage extended warfare when substantial numbers of the troops are conscripted — when the dead and maimed are unwilling participants.
As a child of the 1960s, and someone with a draft card that said 1-A, I didn’t imagine I would ever say anything positive about the Selective Service System, but I do believe the draft helped shorten the Vietnam War. Today, a draft would help clarify the line between self-defense and imperialism, between civilians and warriors, between Peter Drucker and Sun Tzu.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground,” “Letters from Side Lake” and other books.