A great question, especially since it's not just me asking it, but the mighty New York Times. The headline on this post is their headline, on this story in the At War column.
That column hasn't been the only bad news for the military in recent times—and recently in the Times. Last month, the Times ran an article under the headline: "Treated Like a 'Piece of Meat': Female Veterans Endure Harassment at the V.A." The story recounted the sexual harassment that female veterans were receiving from male veterans at a facility for medical care. One female vet said: “Standing in line at the registration desk, I was getting comments from the male patients behind me, looking me up and down. It was a major source of discomfort.”
It's sad, but hardly surprising, that sexual harassment should follow women from the military into civilian life. After all, sexual abuse in the military is widespread. In one year alone, 2012, the Pentagon estimated 26,000 cases of sexual abuse in the military. Recently, a United States senator, Martha McSally of Arizona, the first American woman to fly a plane into combat, spoke publicly about being raped by a superior officer in the Air Force, and the Times reported it in this story.
Then there's the matter of the International Criminal Court. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced last month that the department would not be making it easy for the court's investigators to enter the United States to pursue investigations about war crimes in Afghanistan. True to his word, the department revoked the entry visa of the court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. The World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy expressed its outrage over that action here. Why is the United States so eager to thwart the court? Our government doesn't want Americans prosecuted for war crimes. But do Americans commit war crimes? Well, remember the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq? Remember the Department of Justice guidance signing off on torture? Remember the Winter Soldiers testimony by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, speaking publicly about what they had done in the war, in our name?
In addition to actual wrongdoing, such as sexual abuse and torture, the military has also made headlines with stunning incompetence—not a surprise in an institution that invented two acronyms about its tendency to screw up: SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fouled Up) and FUBAR (Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition). In 2016, for example, American sailors lost their way, blundered into Iranian territorial waters and ended up in the temporary embrace of the Iranian military. The image that caught the public’s attention was an American sailor kneeling compliantly in brief captivity. But most Americans didn’t focus on the incompetence that resulted in their capture. In 2017, in four separate incidents, Navy vessels collided with civilian ships in Asia. Two of the incidents cost the lives of 17 sailors. A Navy investigation found “multiple failures” in those “avoidable” fatal accidents.
In short, there are plenty of reasons to be at least a tad skeptical about the military—not least among them the inconvenient reality of the current forever war, which the "greatest military in the world" has not managed to win. But none of these stories stick in the mind of the public. Instead, Americans universally and emptily utter "Thank you for your service" when they meet someone who is now or has ever served in the military. The Pentagon has helped this attitude along by "paid patriotism," paying the NFL and Major League baseball to honor the military at their games. The airlines routinely allow active duty military to board ahead of other categories of passengers, people whose service is crucial to our lives, such as teachers and doctors.
Politicians find it important to lionize the military as a way of justifying the wars that the troops are sent to fight. Example: President George H.W. Bush, casting about for a reason to lunch the Gulf War, settled on the troops themselves. If we didn't honor the troops—and, by extension, the war he wanted them to fight—we'd be repeating the dishonor that troops returning from Vietnam endured. In popular memory, those troops faced a a torrent of spit. So, the thinking goes, we have to make up for it, with almost idolatrous attitudes toward the military. In a book called The Spitting Image, Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran and sociologist, comprehensively debunked the spitting myth.
The bottom line is this: We'll never break our forever-war habits as long as we fail to hold the military to account. Young people will still join. In fact, the high esteem of being in uniform may be one factor in that enlistment decision, along with patriotism and the need for a job. They'll still be sent on multiple deployments to the forever war. They'll still return home injured, in mind or body, or both. And they'll still fail to get the medical care that we owe them.
So, it's time to take a much more realistic, much less idolatrous attitude toward our military. Our current attitude is dangerous not only for the nation but also for the troops themselves.
First in my class in Officer Candidate School. Late to the conclusion that our attitude toward the military is idolatrous.