Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Soldier Gods Redux

I wrote a weekly column for a local newspaper for three years (2007-2009). One of the most explosively controversial was entitled “Soldier Gods,” inspired by the furor surrounding the ad about “General Betray-us.” 
The online progressive group had placed a full-page ad in the New York Times in advance of General Petraeus’ testimony to Congress about the progress of the troop surge in Iraq. The ad’s headline read “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” The ad accused Petraeus of “cooking the books for the White House.” (You can’t find it at anymore, they removed the page after President Obama nominated Petraeus to be the top commander in Afghanistan, but here’s the Wikipedia link.)
In the column I questioned the wisdom of offering such deference to the military. One of the greatest strengths of America, I believe, is our ability to make fun of, satirize, and ridicule anyone and everyone without fear. No one is immune, from the president on down. Oh—wrong—everyone except the military.
In my column I asked,
When did soldiers become Gods in this country? When did these men and women become elevated over the rest of us pitiful civilians? When did it become unthinkable to question a man or woman in uniform? When did questioning the motives of a soldier become such a shocking action that it required a censure by the United States Senate? Why is it unthinkable to imagine that a soldier might, from personal ambition or misguided confidence in a flawed, incompetent leader, betray the people’s confidence? 
I thought we lived in a free country where we could speak our minds and question everything, laugh at everything. Presidents are mocked constantly by comedians.And by the way, the whole idea of “General Betray Us” wasn’t even original. In an online article for the London Times published August 19, 2007, is this quote: “Critics, including one recently retired general, are privately calling him ‘General Betraeus’ on the grounds that he is too ambitious to deliver a balanced report on the war.”
I received many hateful letters, mostly from women, about how soldiers really were gods, and that they were shocked when they realized my column was denying that “fact.”
Fast-forward five years, and General Petraeus is at the heart of another scandal, this one of his own making. I couldn’t care less about the man’s sex life. But I do think this is an excellent time to reconsider how we worship our soldier gods. Perhaps the adoration had more than a little influence on his poor judgment.
The Washington Post published an article last week speaking to this point, “Petraeus scandal puts four-star general lifestyle under scrutiny”:
Then-defense secretary Robert M. Gates stopped bagging his leaves when he moved into a small Washington military enclave in 2007. His next-door neighbor was Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, who had a chef, a personal valet and — not lost on Gates — troops to tend his property. 
Gates may have been the civilian leader of the world’s largest military, but his position did not come with household staff. So, he often joked, he disposed of his leaves by blowing them onto the chairman’s lawn.The commanders who lead the nation’s military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire, including executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments. Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir. 
The elite regional commanders who preside over large swaths of the planet don’t have to settle for Gulfstream V jets. They each have a C-40, the military equivalent of a Boeing 737, some of which are configured with beds. 
“There is something about a sense of entitlement and of having great power that skews people’s judgment,” Gates said last week. 
Although American generals have long enjoyed many perks — in World War II and in Vietnam, some dined on china set atop linen tablecloths — the amenities afforded to today’s military leaders are more lavish than anyone else in government enjoys, save for the president.
I believe democracy is not compatible with the heroic soldier-god—think of the ancient Romans, when the worship of military victory brought the Republic to an end. Uncritical adoration of the military leads to dictatorship. I finished my “Soldier Gods” column this way:
Two Supreme Court Justices wrote eloquently about the danger of censorship: “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us,” wrote William O. Douglas. “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is the hallmark of an authoritarian regime,” wrote Potter Stewart. 
Maybe the elevation of soldiers to gods is just one more step on the road to a military dictatorship in this country. When we worship the uniform and don’t dare question it, we are ripe for takeover.

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