Posted by Lex, on November 3, 2007
It has become fashionable within foreign policy circles and the elite media to declare an end to the era of what has been labeled “neo-con” idealism in favor of the kind of realist policies so long favored by the traditional gray men in their traditional gray suits – those same whey-faced vendors of realpolitik who accepted the depredations of tyrants within their own borders, so long as they could plausibly skull-crack their way to outward-facing stability. But having encountered the lethal exhalations of these inhuman tyrannies, and equipped as we are with an all volunteer military force in an era where threats both exist and emerge, it’s useful to reflect for a moment before we cast aside our foundational national narratives aside in favor of returning to the hard calculus of unrepentant national interest.
Our national genesis was in the image of a “city on the hill,” a beacon of light and good to all mankind. We tore ourselves from the womb of the old country with the revolutionary conviction that no man had ever inherited a natural right to govern another. We fought a hideously bloody intramural contest to underline that fact and, having at least partially erased the stain of our national birth, repeatedly sent forth the flower of our youth over the course of our second century in defense of human liberty abroad. Along the way we built a vibrant and diverse national culture, a society that is the envy of both the developing and declining worlds, for better or worse. We’ve come a long way since the Second World War, where one in three draftees stepping across the threshold of the Great Depression was too undernourished to serve in ranks to the very different problem of the current day: One third of a perhaps fatally comfortable society is too obese.
Towards the end of the Cold War, many progressives believed that we could somehow distance ourselves from our foundational ideals in favor of existential survival. It was no great distance between abandoning our foundational myths to denying the basis for them, and a welcome salve to the conscience besides. For the crime of labeling this a false dichotomy, the neo-cons were subjected to the avid obloquy of their erstwhile fellow travelers – they had the temerity to insist that there was no tension between our national ideals and our national interests.
In the international arena, what the neo-cons stood for more than anything else was a unshakeable belief that America was, all things considered, very much a force for good in the world, especially as contrasted to the soul-destroying tyranny of the Soviet Empire. They also believed that the power to do good implied a responsibility to do so. Their influence helped to build a volunteer and professional armed force dedicated to those notions – a force that man for man, and pound for pound, is second to none in all the world’s history in both destructive force and gracious humanitarianism. This is not a historically typical combination.
Conscripts can be whipped into line. Faced with the certainty of revolvers at their backs and the possibility of machineguns to their front, they are capable of acts of desperate inspiration. But volunteers on the other had, whatever their first motivations might have been to join the line – an escape from urban hardship or rural boredom, money for college, the chance for a middle class career or a simple faith in our national goodness – they must believe to fight hard. They must believe to fight well.
In the midst of the fray, with the bullets snapping and whining, and death leering in on all sides, the soldier fights for the man or woman on his right or left. But before he gets to the firing line, what keeps him moving forward towards the sound of the guns is the belief that what he is about to do has inherent value. There may be careerists among those who are decorated for valor, but there are very few among the valorous who are motivated by career aspirations. No one ever died in the hope of receiving the benefits of the Montgomery GI Bill.
Conscript armies served the Republic well back when our society generally understood shared sacrifice, shared hardship. The Marines who waded ashore through 500 yards of hip deep water against machine gun fire at Tarawa were hard men that had never suffered under the illusion that life owed them anything, or that death would come easy. Our society today is softer, a fact that the firmness of our volunteer force starkly emphasizes. For my own part, I was proud to fight alongside volunteer idealists. I do not know that I would be quite so eager, nor anything like so comfortable, fighting alongside realists.