Tuesday, August 02, 2005


David Kennedy Revisited

I have been engaged in an extended discussion in comments with one of my readers. Replying to a post on the remarks of David Kennedy, Ed Darrell took me to task for my initial reaction to Kennedy's description of our military sharing many essential characteristics with mercenary forces. Ed made some good points, passed along some other articles on Kennedy's speech, and at last a link to the graduation speech in its entirety, from which an excerpt was published the NY Times.

I have compiled my responses in the remainder of this post, as I think it stands as a helpful rebuttal to Kennedy's thesis, as I perceived it.

This debate remained civil but somewhat frustrating, as Ed kept telling me that Kennedy was essentially saying exactly what me and other MILBLOGGER's were saying. In the end, he concluded that "the propaganda for the war has penetrated everyone," causing "the men on the front lines miss the point and take offense." Reading through the entire speech, which is very clever in the manner in which his criticism of the U.S. Military is masked, confirmed my belief that what he said was what I thought he said. Ed belabors the other things Kennedy said, about the "nobel profession of arms," and the need for all members of society to contribute (muscularly and meaningfully) to the common good, particularly our armed services.

In isolation, we MILBLOGGERS should be able to agree with those portions of Kennedy's sentiments. I won't dispute the nice sentiments that Kennedy expressed, but they struck me as paliatives to the much more bitter pill he was offering. The manner in which he framed his argument, his thesis itself, was what most of us reacted to, were offended by, and rightfully called false. The use of terms like mercenary, Hessian, and suggesting that soldiers serve primarily for financial reasons, so fraught with negative connotations, undercut and rendered faint his praise.

No, Kennedy's premise wasn't exactly that the U.S. military is doing something great and sacrificial for our nation, and that we all need to chip in with our support, and all citizens should consider military service an obligation.

He started his talk saying the military was out of touch and isolated from the rest of society, that its members were narrowly restricted to those who would put their lives at great risk for money. He further suggested that the military was so separated, that the society at large had little common interest and purpose.

My own experience gives lie to these assertions. I am part of a 200 soldier National Guard Battalion, part of a 4,000 soldier National Guard Division headquarters and support units, which commands 18,000 subordinate troops in Iraq. 75% of these soldiers are National Guard, augmented by U.S. Army Active Duty soldiers. We are not only not separated from civil society, we are of it. We were called out of it. We serve out of a sense of civic obligation and loyalty to our country in a time of grave need.

Kennedy is right in this, that we should continue to urge our fellow citizens to share that burden. But not because we are mercenary, isolated, killing professionals; but because it is a civic virtue. (Not that anyone speaks of such obligations anymore.) If even a small fraction of our elites approached the sustenance of democracy as a noble civic obligation, we could lighten the burden all the way 'round, and surely avoid any necessity for the draft.

Kennedy's initial premise was that the military's separation from society could make it too easy for us to lose political control and allow the U.S. to use military force in ways antithetical to our principles. He alluded to the perception around the world that we use power aggressively, we have a "coercive footprint" that are military power is "assymetrical" to both our own security needs and those of other countries. And he clearly stated that our military prowess will cause us to seek military solutions at the expense of diplomacy.

Ed wanted me to acknowledge the final point Kennedy makes in his address, that he calls these graduates to get dirty, to get into the struggle, to pitch in. I asked, "What would cause us to conclude that he means as a way of supporting current foreign policy?" That's not how I read the speech. It seemed to me that Kennedy hopes these young people help halt the military in what he views as a slide towards (further) military excess.

From the thrust of his opening comments, Kennedy suggests that the U.S. intelligentsia (as represented by the graduates of Standford) needs to start viewing the "noble profession of arms" as a worthy calling precisely so that the military doesn't end up as a "professional killing machine" of ruthless precision and amoral intent. And as those of us who currently serve clearly recognize the (unstated) Vietnam allusions, and know the culture and integrity of our service, that's offensive.

There is no doubt in my mind that Kennedy served up a warning to his audience that, if the military is left as is, "that power dynamic may be lethal to political accountability."

That is saying, Fascism, without uttering the words.

(Linked as a Covered Dish at Basil's Blog. Lots of yummy bloginations, check it out!)

(Also part of the Outside the Beltway traffic jam., and in Citizen Smash's Morning Quarters.)

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