‘Being Friendly to One Another’
James Mattis says cynicism is cowardice
Secretary of Defense James Mattis was recently honored with a Distinguished Service Award by The Center for the National Interest for the incredible work he has done, both in uniform and out, in the name of the United States.
Upon receiving the reward, he delivered a short speech touting the accomplishments of the Department of Defense under his tenure. He also payed homage to the men and women in uniform, all of whom, across the services, are now under his purview and responsibility.
In doing so, however, Secretary Mattis made some remarks carrying unsettling implications. In his expression of gratitude of those who serve the country, Mattis stated:
Today we expect our military to carry on as a living model of America’s equal opportunity, meritocracy and representatives of patriotic commitment — and they live it every day. The young men and women entering the military today have grown up with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the television. They have no illusions about what might be demanded of them.
So take heart from their example from our revolutionary days to today, and remember, in the military, cynicism is simply another form of cowardice. Should your faith in our nation ever be shaken, bring to mind the high-spirited faith of our troops and you’ll be refreshed in your own spirit.
Before analyzing these remarks, it is important to acknowledge what Mattis did and did not say. The Secretary of Defense pointed to the military as representing the very best America has to offer, a sentiment most, this writer included, would agree with.
Mattis is also saying that, in these hyper-partisan times, Americans can always look to the military as a source of inspiration due to its values of honor, loyalty, love for country and selflessness. Again, this is a sentiment both this writer and most Americans would share.
What Mattis did not say is that the military ought to be the only source of inspiration. Given his long and continuing career in the defense of the country and the fact he was being honored by one of the top defense and foreign-policy think tanks in the industry, it’s only logical Mattis would single out the military as a source of rejuvenating one’s faith in the nation.
In isolation, his remarks were entirely benign, correct, and innocent. But what if Americans already view the military as the only institution worthy of respect and trust? What happens when we find inspiration only in those who wear uniforms and bear arms?
It is no secret there is widespread distrust and a lack of respect for much of America’s major institutions – Congress, the presidency, the media, among others. The glaring exception has been and continues to be the military. Poll after poll bears this out. When the only other institution possessing an approval rating anywhere close to 70 percent is small business, there is no question – America places its collective faith in those charged with exercising violence to defend it.
Americans may not be unjustified in lacking faith in most institutions. The question is, why does faith in the military always seem to weather the storm? “Part of the allure life in the military many civilians can’t appreciate – and that’s okay – is to become part of an enterprise that is based on a sense of common purpose, collective purpose [emphases mine],” the military scholar and retired Army officer Andrew Bacevich noted.
Bacevich then states a reason for a lack of trust in the country is due to a lack of common, shared values within society. On this point, he is certainly correct. In an incredibly diverse nation of 300 million-plus, where individual freedom and liberty is so deeply-treasured, it would certainly be difficult to achieve consensus on a wide swath of issues.
But simultaneously, most Americans do seem to view the lack of commonality and shared values as detrimental. For example, nearly half of Americans favor some form of mandatory national service, with unifying Americans across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines commonly cited as a motivating factor.
Americans may be deeply polarized, but sentiments such as favoring mandatory national service indicate they also want to achieve common and collective purposes, which would explain, in part their overwhelming admiration for the armed forces.
But why the military alone? As the saying goes, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The idea of sacrificing one’s life or livelihood for the greater good is a virtue viewed favorably by most, if not all, Americans. Inspirational stories of everyday people acting charitably towards their fellows often go viral, suggesting Americans favor a world in which people behave selflessly and the military certainly embodies that concept.
Keep on fighting … you are buying time. You are a great example for our country. It’s got some problems … problems we don’t have in the military. Hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting and showing it … Being friendly to one another.
While some viewed his remarks as just another “pep talk,” others worried it could reinforce the already-prevalent belief the military is “better” than the society it protects, exacerbating the civil-military divide. It’s here what’s so unsettling becomes apparent.
U.S. Defense Department photos
It’s not because Americans find inspiration in the military. It’s the fact they seem to find it only in the military. By its very nature, the armed forces are a most authoritarian, un-democratic institution. Citizens serve on a voluntary basis, but once inducted into service, your career and conduct are entirely at the whim of the military.
Discipline is harsh, compliance is certainly not voluntary. It’s mandatory. If servicemembers from diverse backgrounds appear to get along, it is, in part, because they have no other choice. Failure to settle differences in a decisive, expeditious manner risks injury, death and a whole host of other consequences most civilians simply cannot relate to in their non-military jobs.
Finally, the military is an instrument of policy, specifically, violent policy. It’s structure of commonality, collectivity, discipline and its seeming effectiveness all stem from its need to be able to inflict harm in a controlled, organized fashion upon those who threaten the nation.
If Americans find a good example to follow almost exclusively in an institution that operates along authoritarian, un-democratic lines and specializes in the exercise of violence, what does this bode for the future of the “experiment of democracy,” as Mattis put it? Could we see a day when the American people lose faith in the country, lose their identity, and willingly exchange liberties in the interest of the common and collective good?
The future is impossible to predict, but we are already seeing troubling trends underway. Civil-military relations scholar Lindsay Cohn, for instance, expressed concern in the way servicemembers and their families have been used by policymakers and the public to “undercut political debate on non-military matters.”
Cohn specifically cites the national anthem protests and budget issues in Congress as key examples of how political leaders, the public, and those with access to large forums failed to address the matter at hand, finding instead a reason to not address the issue at all.
The problem is not incurring the risk of ending up on the wrong side of the argument. The problem is a society that will not bother to resolve its differences because it would rather not endure the pain and struggle involved in doing so. Regardless of how one feels about government shutdowns or whether those kneeling during the national anthem are making valid arguments, these are discussions worth having and should not be squelched out of fear of “disrespecting the troops.”
The consequences could be grave. In an example of what can happen in a society where public admiration of the military reaches dangerous excesses or becomes a “sacred cow,” as Cohn put it, the services could view themselves as entitled and untouchable, exempt from the tough choices and trade-offs other Americans would be subjected to in, for example, a budget battle.
Should the military successfully exempt itself from such debates, it could cement it as a society apart and set a precedent in which the military writes its own check, while the American people are at the mercy of a government they have lost faith in.
In turn, some Americans will become resentful of the military, while others will double down on their support for it, creating yet another fault-line in an already hyper-polarized environment. As issues go unresolved, Americans on both sides may lose faith in the system altogether and turn towards un-civil and un-democratic means to fix problem.
The risk is not a military coup, but a state of chaos and dysfunction that serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy – America is a morally bankrupt and mortally wounded nation that needs to be dismantled and re-built in a different image.
Currently, it is inconceivable the military could actually lose the respect of the American people, but it may already be occurring. Respect, after all, is earned and the military, while deserving of it, is most certainly not entitled to it. Reminding the military of this and that it cannot and will not be shielded from critical debates, however, is difficult when it already has so much public support behind it.
None of this is to suggest the public ought to respect its military less or that there is something inherently wrong about an approval rating of 70 percent. It is to say the American people ought to think twice about saving all its love for its protectors, especially when those protectors comprise an exclusive and un-democratic institution.
There may not be a civil-military divide just yet, but America’s idolatry of its defenders may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Lastly, the public should take a line of dialogue from the classic courtroom drama A Few Good Men to heart. You don’t need to wear a patch on your arm to have honor. The military may embody the best of America, but so can other institutions, in their own unique fashion. As former Army officer Raphael Cohen wrote in a recent essay:
American democracy has never run with military-like efficiency, nor did the founders intend for it to function that way. And while it is easy to lose faith in American institutions by focusing in on the problems of the moment, if Americans could take the longer view, they would see this system – with all its inherent ugliness – can still produce remarkable accomplishments.
If Americans possess such strong faith in the military, they would do well to heed such advice from those who have served. Nothing less than the survival of the country depends on it.