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Symptoms of Military Illiteracy

One of my teachers in college, a distinguished historian, served in the Navy in World War II. His little destroyer escort had no chaplain. When news of Franklin Roosevelt’s death came over the radio, it fell to the young lieutenant to organize a memorial service. As the crew sang the Navy Hymn–“Eternal Father, strong to save”–he realized that he’d never known a world without FDR. “Who’s Eternal Father now?” he wondered.

Bill Clinton.

In recent weeks, formally and informally, the Defense Department and the Armed Services have issued stern warnings against officers speaking out about their commander-in-chief. The warnings are correct and should be heeded, albeit for more reasons than the maintenance of good order and discipline. The most effective way for our warriors to express their contempt would be silence: the special silence reserved for the especially contemptible. It is possible to obey the commander-in-chief and yet shun him.

As Jean-Luc Picard would say: “Make it so.”

But there’s a larger issue here: the relationship between the military and the American people. Whatever the manner of his exit, Bill Clinton will be gone soon enough. The damage he wrought to the military’s power and spirit will take far longer to repair. But this too shall pass. The greater problem will remain.

But is it a problem? Some claim that there’s a rift between people and military. Yet opinion surveys consistently place the military at or near the top of admired professions (charisma by default?). Mac Owens, a perceptive observer of things civil-military, contends that there is no rift, only the hatred of the PC left, amplified by their access to the media and, in some cases, intensified by their 1960s evasions.

Others see not a rift but a necessary chasm, given the military’s unique mission and needs. John Hillen, another astute commentator,

says of the gap between society and military: “Keep it, defend it, manage it.”

Wise words. But rift or no rift, the fact remains–we have become a nation of military illiterates. No one under the age of 50 has been drafted. The percentage of veterans in Congress shrinks steadily. John Wayne gives way to Demi Moore. The media, as always, fixate on scandal and exposé, ignoring or eliding the complexities.

And herein the problem. A People that does not know its military cannot defend it against those who would trash it. Empty admiration will not avail. And here conservatives, with their Big Government penchant for tossing money at the Defense Department, do more harm than good. A high-level Pentagon official in the Reagan administration told me recently that the only thing the People need to know is that we need to increase spending.

The People, one might think, should know more.

But how to reacquaint the People with the military in an extended era of volunteer forces and peace? One answer may be the increased participation of retired officers in our public life. A few thousand old colonels and generals (OK, admirals, too) getting into politics, full or part-time, might benefit both the military and the political system.

Not everyone would like it, of course. But consider what one retired Army general, of African-American descent, has done.

Not Colin Powell. John Stanford.

Several years ago, when it became known that General Stanford was in the running for Seattle Superintendent of Schools, the local libs chorused a predictable moan. He’ll be too authoritarian, he won’t listen, he’ll have us all doing pushups at dawn, he’ll be too . . . different. But in two years, Stanford became one of the most popular and respected figures in Seattle. His combination of discipline, energy, commitment, insistence on standards, and care for people–the basic qualities of any good commander–converted his earlier detractors.

He’s in a vicious fight with cancer now, and may never achieve all he could have done “for the kids.” But the point is: There are other John Stanfords out there. Thousands of them. They’re needed, in more ways than one.

So here’s a challenge, of sorts. All you gents (and ladies) who’ve hung up the suit in recent years . . . what are you doing in and for the public world? All of you still in uniform . . . play cleanly, by the rules. But consider some sort of public activity after you leave.

George Washington once said that a man “does not put off the citizen when he puts on the soldier.” Perhaps, in certain ways, the reverse may also be true.