On the Unravelling of Our Military Culture

I’ve always hesitated to comment on the state of our military culture.  I’ve never served and, for a variety of reasons, seriously doubt I ever will be (or ever would have been) called upon to enter combat.  But over the years I’ve come to know a number of military families reasonably well, and to respect them a great deal.  The sense of duty and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good are impressive and even humbling to witness.  What’s more, as citizens of a republic, it is our duty to work for the health of our military, to keep it as the guardian of our nation and our liberty.  And it seems clear to me that the essential, unspoken agreement between our republic and its military—that the nation would ask its soldiers to fight and die only when and where both necessary and meaningful, that we would do our best to support them in their cause by giving them the tools, including morale and esprit de corps, they need to do their job as effectively as possible, and that we would respect their values and culture—has unraveled.

The consequences of this unraveling, the result of bad faith on the part of the republic, are severe for those in uniform, and for all of us.  Military virtue is a great and good thing in and of itself.  But it requires the proper cultural context if it is to serve its highest ends, for members of the military, and for their country.  And I am beginning to wonder how much longer caring parents can continue to recommend their children choose the military life.  Like the rest of our republican institutions and norms, military culture has been under attack for decades, and has reached the point where it is time to question its long term viability.

The latest news blip regarding military culture was the fight over military “chaplains” for atheists.  Certain members of Congress had taken up the cause of military atheists, but so far have been unsuccessful in getting officially atheist chaplains on the payroll—though I’ve met many men of the cloth whose idea of God is no far stretch from unbelief.

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What is most interesting about the call for atheist chaplains is how uninteresting it seems.  Given the open hostility of so many in the courts, the media, and the Executive Branch for religion, and given recent moves against religious expression by members of the military, it is little wonder that atheists would feel comfortable pushing for official “religious” recognition.  Recent Pentagon scandals, with brass soliciting the advice of anti-religious activist Mikey Weinstein, punishing evangelization, taking down Christian art, discouraging prayers at military funerals, hiring instructional contractors who include Christian groups on lists of possible terrorists groups, and so on, show where this Administration stands on respect for Christianity in particular.  Most recently, a military chaplain in Alaska was censored, and faces possible disciplinary action, for daring to repeat the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. Everything vaguely military is to be deemed the property of the government, such that the government will be justified in enforcing the kind of “strict neutrality” that places majority religions at a distinct operational disadvantage, in effect becoming a suspect set of beliefs and practices.

The problem goes beyond expressions of faith.  The integration of practicing homosexuals and women into all aspects of military life, including combat, was imposed seemingly with little opposition.  But one need have little direct contact with military personnel to know how deep and widespread runs opposition to, and damage from, these assaults on traditional values and the requirements for esprit de corps.  Yet no one who wishes any kind of career in the military would openly oppose the new policies.

Of course, it is an essential part of military culture that subordinates accept their orders without complaint—how else could a military unit survive, let alone accomplish its missions?  But the Administration has taken serious advantage of this virtue, abusing it and those who have a right to expect better treatment.  Any who do complain are labeled bad soldiers and washed out, while the lack of complaint is taken as agreement.  Meanwhile, the Administration undermines unit cohesion by heightening inevitable sexual tensions within the ranks.  We hear that there is no reason for opposition to these moves because they vindicate civil rights.  Yet such a vision rests on the conviction that the right of an individual to military service and advancement trumps that of soldiers and their units to maximum ability to carry out their missions with maximum effectiveness and minimum loss of life.  Whatever one wishes to make of claims that particular women and/or practicing homosexuals can “do the job” in combat, this simply is not the question.  And the view that somehow soldiers should set aside their biological drives as well as their common traditional values in the name of particular social experiments is itself the root of the problem, for it shows a determination to use the military as a laboratory for social experimentation rather than to uphold the republic’s duty to repay soldiers for their sacrifices by placing their wellbeing above all else in military matters.

As with most of our deeper cultural crises, that of the military is not purely the result of one political party’s ideological drives.  I still remember the first time I began to question the viability of our republic’s agreement with its military.  In the early days of the occupation of Iraq, I was sitting at a table with our departed friend, political scientist George Carey, and a neoconservative former student of his.  George was decrying the waste of young men’s lives to terrorists in a country in which the nation had no clear interest.  The neoconservative’s response?  “We pay them good money to do what we tell them to do” and “soldiers get killed every day, just like other people in other jobs;” in effect, such concerns were, in his view, beside the point.

Perhaps the all-volunteer military was a mistake—it having allowed too many people, whose children need not serve, to treat military service as just another job, hence available for whatever tasks and experiments the government might see as in its own interest.  Certainly this attitude lends itself to the view that one must “open up” positions in combat, or wherever, to particular groups as a matter of fairness.  And even that is part of an overall change in attitude over the last several decades that belies contempt for what makes military virtue a good—namely attachment, not only to country, but to the traditions and norms of that country, as well as a reciprocal valuation that says “we will do everything we can to help you protect us effectively, to send you on no stupid missions, and to respect your way of life.”

All of this shows the new danger of military life for the values, self-respect, and lives of military personnel.  But we should not forget the greater danger to our republic.  For we are turning our soldiers into just another set of employees.  And that is extremely dangerous for us.  By sapping soldiers of their faith, by telling them that they are to do what they are told, and that they will be told to do whatever we find it in our interest to tell them to do—even if it is senseless or even base—we are breaking the back of real military virtue.  By teaching soldiers that they must obey whatever their superiors tell them and at the same time dismissing the faith and tradition that lend legitimacy to the fact of high office, we are stripping them of their republican values.  A soldier who will do whatever his commander tells him, no matter what, is a dangerous soldier.  To a great extent that danger is a necessary cost of battle effectiveness.  But the breaking of the trust between soldier and society, in particular by undermining shared faith in God, family, and traditional values, leaves only the state as the object of loyalty.  And even the state will be personified only in the commander.  In such a way the military may become the tool of tyranny.

Our nation, from its very inception, has been blessed with a military that is loyal, not just to its commanders, but to the nation and to the Constitution.  This has been possible because our soldiers share the people’s sense of duty to the traditions that hold us together.  Can we expect the same in the future?  Unless we walk back from the precipice of social experimentation—of reduction of the soldier from a man of virtue to an employee—any confidence in the loyalty of our military to our way of life, rather than simply our government, will be ill-placed and dangerous to whatever freedoms may remain.

This column first appeared July 29, 2013 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.


  • Bruce Frohnen

    Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

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