I’m sick of being lectured by generals and veterans. (More)

As it happens, I’m a veteran. I say “as it happens” because, frankly, my being a veteran shouldn’t matter a damn in a conversation about patriotism, respect for the flag, or anything other political topic. As it happens, while serving with Marines I helped organize funerals and comfort grieving families. Again “as it happens” because, while their grief still sometimes gives me nightmares, neither my experience nor those nightmares entitle me to any privileged voice on “sacred” national values.

So I bristled, more than a little, when Outhouse chief of staph and retired Gen. John Kelly said this:

Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of [our] soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Coast Guardsmen in combat … Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them.
We don’t look down upon those of you who that haven’t served. In fact, in a way we’re a little bit sorry because you’ll have never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kinds of things our service men and women do – not for any other reason than they love this country. So just think of that.

With all due respect General – literally, because you’re due no respect so that’s what I’m giving you – get off your high horse.

First, the idea that men and women in uniform are “the best 1 percent this country produces” is a complete crock. I remember the Marines I served with. A few were outstanding human beings. A few were camo-patterned sacks of shit. The vast majority were … about average, no worse but also no better than the average American civilian. And that includes the officers.

Second, you clearly do “look down upon those of you who haven’t served.” If you didn’t look down on them, you couldn’t be “a little bit sorry” that they “never have experienced the wonderful joy” blah-blah-poppycock. It wasn’t a “wonderful joy” to bury friends and talk to their widows. The combat vets I’ve known never talked about the “wonderful joy” of killing and maiming other human beings, or seeing their buddies killed and maimed.

And most of the people I served with had plenty of other reasons for being there besides “they love this country.” A steady paycheck, vocational training, college benefits, opportunity for travel and adventure, and health care were high on the list. In short, it was a job. It wasn’t a great-paying job, not for junior enlisted folks, but it paid better than a lot of the civilian alternatives and – if you played your cards right and saved well – it could set you up for a good-paying job when you got out.

In short, it was a calculated risk — and often poorly-calculated because late teens and early twenty-somethings aren’t renowned for brilliant risk calculations. Quite the contrary.

More’s the point, the U.S. is not Sparta.

Allen West may wax rhapsodic about “the American warrior culture,” but never forget that Allen West is a convicted war criminal. Women don’t owe it to America to “strengthen up the men who are going to the fight for you,” like the Spartan mother in Jean Jacques François Lebarbier’s painting at the top of the page.

Sparta was an ugly, despotic military regime:

On close inspection it is a remarkable study in contradictions: long-famed among the Greeks for its constitutional stability and regarded by many ancient writers as the embodiment of traditional Greek values of civic responsibility, personal bravery, and bluntly honest speech, Sparta proved to be a devious, self-deluded, brittle, and hopelessly confused society at the very moment of its most notable success. […] At the heart of those apparent contradictions was a society whose strength lay in a profoundly conservative social order, an order predicated on maintaining a bewildering array of mutually hostile social castes.
At birth, a young Spartan male was brought before a board of elders and examined for physical deformities. If he was not up to standard, he was carried to a nearby gorge, where he was left to die of exposure. At age seven, a boy who had survived his initial review was taken from his mother to begin his formal education in discipline and obedience, a training that would effectively last the rest of his life. Young Spartans were divided among ‘herds’ of youths in an educational regime that resembled a Boy Scout troop in hell. Each herd was run by the older boys, who were mandated to whip (literally, in the case of certain endurance rituals) the younger ones into shape. In effect, the Spartan kindergarten was run by the toughest kids from junior high, and these were in turn urged on to new levels of toughness by stern elders, men who had suffered the same upbringing.

Only those military males – known as ‘Similars’ because they were expected to dress and behave identically – were entitled to a voice in civic affairs. Women could own property, but they could not vote. As for the lesser castes, they were little more than chattel in a military pre-industrial complex. Indeed to graduate from training, a ‘Similar’ had to murder someone from a lower caste, with his bare hands.

Which sounds pretty much like what the God-King – and Kelly – mean by “Make America Great Again,” as Vox’s Dara Lind explains:

In Kelly’s eyes, those who serve America understand it and those who do not simply don’t. The latter, in fact, can’t really be trusted to preserve America’s goodness.
So when Kelly waxed nostalgic about the days when certain things were “sacred” – women, religion, and battlefield sacrifice – he wasn’t just echoing the complaints of so many who support Donald Trump because they too feel America is no longer great. He was saying that there are Americans who have kept the flame of American greatness alive – those who serve the country for a living – and that the best thing the rest of America can do is keep a respectful distance.
Furthermore, to Kelly, the caste of those who serve America goes beyond members of the military to those who protect against threats “at home” – the people he was leading as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

At DHS, Kelly routinely expressed frustration with anyone who questioned the actions of DHS staff – whether they were Customs and Border Protection officers detaining people at airports under Trump’s first travel ban, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials detaining immigrants who were supposed to be protected from deportation under the DACA program.

In a speech at George Washington University in April, Kelly blamed this for DHS’s notoriously low morale: “When you discourage, when you disable, when you unjustly criticize and default to believing the initial reports as opposed to defaulting to believing the stories told by my professionals, what else do you expect?”

As he sees it, the rest of us should “default to believing the stories told by my professionals,” and to criticize policy is to criticize the supreme Warrior Caste of military and law enforcement.

Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall makes a similar argument:

Attacks on President Trump are attacks on the sanctity of heroism and patriotic sacrifice itself. Again, attacking President Trump is attacking the troops. It’s the same maneuver driving Trump’s war on the NFL. Kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police misconduct really isn’t about police brutality or racism it all. It’s spitting on the sacrifice of American soldiers.

Thus we get journalists asking veterans who may protest what, when, and how. As if veterans – and only veterans – own the flag, the national anthem, and the Constitution. Small wonder that journalists might think so, since the Pentagon spent over $10 million for militaristic “paid patriotism activities” at professional sporting events.

And lest you think I’m going over the top with the Sparta-Supreme-Warrior-Caste metaphor, Outhouse sewer spewer Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared yesterday: “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that’s something highly inappropriate.”

No, it’s not “highly inappropriate” to “get into a debate with a four-star Marine general.” Like all military officers, Kelly swore an oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” That includes the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and a free press … even – indeed especially – speech and press reports that criticize our government and its policies.

We owe Kelly no obeisance, nor even any “default to believing.”

We are not Sparta.


Image Credits — “A Spartan Woman Giving a Shield to Her Son” Jean Jacques François Lebarbier (Portland Art Museum); Red Curtains: dyvision (videoblocks.com); Greek Columns: Gus Einstein (OpenClipArt); Composition: Crissie Brown (BPICampus.com)


Good day and good nuts