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The problem with conflating citizens and warriors
by Benjamin Lawless
In a recent National Review column, H. R. McMaster laments the decline of the United States (U.S.) Military’s warrior ethos. He uses the U.S. Army’s warrior ethos as an example. Soldiers are mission focused, never accept defeat, never quit, and never leave a fallen comrade. Someone as militarily experienced as McMaster likely knows something about how the U.S. military develops a warrior ethos in its troops, yet he hijacks Veteran’s Day to lay the blame for the ethos’ decline at the feet of the American public and civilian leaders stating the public needs to do its part to restore this ethos. This is where he goes astray. Cultivating a warrior ethos is not the American public’s job. It’s not Congress’ job. It is the military’s job. The whole purpose of the military’s services is to man, train, and equip a warrior force and ideally inculcate it with a warrior ethos. However, McMaster chooses to cross the Rubicon of the Civil-Military divide and instruct the public on how to better serve the military so that the military might strengthen its own ethos.
After raising the alarm, he rambles through several causes of this decline. He states that flawed military strategies and policies sap the individual servicemember’s will to fight. But is that really true? Twenty years of failure and missteps in Afghanistan noted at the tactical, operational, and strategic level were brought to the attention of Congress, the Public, and the Department of Defense and State, yet warriors kept warfighting. Recently, General Milley testified to Congress that he personally thought the war was unwinnable about five years ago (thanks for letting America know… NOW). Yet a generation of troops went forward to faithfully execute their given mission without Milley’s foreknowledge or the public’s misunderstanding of what was being accomplished in Afghanistan. They went forward under the command and senior leadership of McMaster and others. This is a testimony to the Warrior Ethos of a professional military force. Additionally, the Army is still meeting recruiting goals and seeing historic increases of women and minority recruits. 50% of America’s youth understand and know about military service as an optional career. This doesn’t sound like a public or army disillusioned with serving or refusing to serve.
How Our Nation Understands Our “Warriors”
H.R. claims that Americans do not understand the warrior ethos because less than 1% of the country is serving at any given time. This is a misleading argument. According to the US Census Bureau, as of 2018, 7% of Americans have served in the armed forces spanning from WWII to present day. It’s roughly 8% of the public if you count the active and reserve force currently serving. Although the active force at any given time is less than 1% of the population, that number does not include the millions of supporting personnel in public and private industry who are very familiar with the military’s mission and warrior ethos. This nucleus of veterans, active duty servicemembers, and civilians associated with the military does a pretty good job shaping and influencing the American public’s understanding of war and warriors.
Although individual understanding of the military and its ethos may be cursory writ large, Americans overwhelmingly support their military. According to Gallup 69% of Americans have confidence in the military. Americans may not be looking in the mirror every morning and reciting the Warrior Ethos but they likely understand wars are fought to defend America, warriors do war stuff, and they don’t mind paying taxes to support national defense. Rudimentary descriptions of military missions are common among the American public. After all, most Americans aren’t attending military schools in high school, west point for college, or earning PhDs in American History en masse. They aren’t reading Clausewitz in their spare time or losing sleep over the degradation of a warrior ethos and nor should they.
McMaster also seems to lack confidence in the U.S. Military’s ability to educate senior leadership or the public on what it does. Yet the Department of Defense and military services have robust public relations departments that do educate the public and senior government officials alike on the military’s mission, accomplishments, and warrior ethos. He also neglects to tell the reader that there is an extensive representation of the military in congressional liaison offices, academia, local recruiting stations, veteran organizations, bases in local communities, and a highly visible presence around the globe.
The Warrior Ethos in Popular Culture
Contrary to McMaster’s opinion, popular culture does not water down the warrior ethos. To be sure there are stories of broken veterans and warriors (a testimony to seen and unseen wounds from our recent conflicts) but there are also stories of people giving the last measure, breaking down barriers to serve, protecting innocent people, and generally reflecting the courage, strength, and spirit of a classical warrior. Elements of the warrior ethos are seen in our junior, amateur, and professional sports and competitions like American Ninja Warrior. American TV shows are largely based on simple formulas like response to crisis, overcoming challenges, or competing to be the “top” something. Never mind the millions of Americans who gain some basic idea of a warrior ethos following their favorite superhero franchise. Also, Americans seemingly can’t stop calling themselves “heroes.” Although the term is degraded when it describes every person in the country, it is probably our country’s most consistent Freudian slip. Americans want to be heroic, and self-appointed heroes have an innate warrior ethos. I would submit that this culture actually supports military recruiting and strengthens acceptance of and adherence to the U.S. military’s warrior ethos.
After targeting pop culture, he shifts to education by roughly making the point that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is bad and Americans don’t have a firm enough grasp on military history, national history or diplomacy to understand war and warriors. He warns of a CRT based, racially divided military undermining the mission and will of servicemembers to fight and follow orders. However, he seems to forget that he is in civilian territory now. The military will get whoever is recruited into the military. It may be that a divisive citizenry with new social roots established in CRT becomes the norm of American culture. However, the onus is on the military to establish a warrior ethos with the raw product of American citizenry that joins its ranks via a recruiter’s monthly quota. The fact that he doesn’t like the raw material provided is irrelevant, it simply means the military will have to find a way to instill a warrior ethos in its volunteers and fight wars.
Continuing this thread he advocates for the general public, academic institutions, and public leaders to better understand wars and warriors through the study of military history, American history, and diplomacy. While depth of this knowledge would better inform the American public’s understanding of war and warrior culture, it does not automatically lead to the establishment of a warrior ethos in the military. Public leaders who are educated at the level McMaster deems acceptable for informed military and diplomatic decisions are not required to align their decisions with his opinions. If leaders choose not to fight a war and Congress or the President ends a military conflict against military advice, then it’s the military’s job to withdraw despite any perceived violation of its warrior ethos. Likewise, it is within America’s right to reject the military’s ethos and not place the mission first, to accept defeat, to quit, and to leave fallen comrades behind. Ignoble? Perhaps. But within its right. It’s the servicemember’s job to understand that their warrior ethos is intact despite an anti-ethos political decision.
A Man At Odds With The Times
Finally, H.R. attacks modernity. He warns that America’s public leaders, citizens, and military are enamored with technology so they can circumvent the horrors of close combat. Here he masks his own knowledge of war. Technology can lull people into a sense of security and might cause some to posit the end of close combat, but it also increases the time, space, and lethality of forces who must engage in close combat. Again, it’s not the American public’s job to master the nuances of fifth, sixth, or seventh generation warfare or the intricacies of warfare. They expect their elected leaders and the military to know those things. After all, aren’t our military leaders commissioned with special trust and confidence to determine these things? Shouldn’t Americans reasonably expect our military leaders to modernize the warrior ethos as warriors fight wars in different ways? Modernity is a benefit to warfare and it is inevitable. America fought a counter-insurgency in Vietnam for about eleven years and we lost approximately 58,000 Americans. We lost 10% of that in twenty years of war across two theaters of conflict during the Global War on Terror. We will remember all of those Americans on Veterans Day, but if it wasn’t for modern technology, we might be remembering a heck of a lot more who didn’t make it back to their families.
McMaster exhibits all the earmarks of a conservative realist who rightly wishes to preserve a warrior ethos he dedicated so many years of his life to. He also seems to embody the old man yelling at kids to get off the lawn. He makes a common-sense observation that a unified public, highly educated in national and military history and diplomacy, have a better understanding of what they represent when they join the military. He commands the respect of the reader because of his military career and education. But he’s a scold demanding the tail wag the dog. Perhaps he’s been in public service so long that he is completely disconnected from the average American.
Americans are a culturally indulgent, individualistic, egalitarian, and proud people who see little separation between themselves and civil or military leaders. In contrast, the military is an extremely authoritarian and hierarchical system in which most Americans will serve for practical or patriotic reasons knowingly accepting limitations of their freedom to serve the nation. It’s an organization that requires one person to acknowledge another person by title with respect, despite their merits, on threat of punishment.
This is counterintuitive to Americans. It’s not counterintuitive to McMaster. The 99 % of Americans not serving right now shouldn’t be expected by less than 1% to embrace and maintain a warrior ethos so that the 1% can magically feel or become more warrior like. Preserving the warrior ethos is squarely the military’s job. If it can’t do that despite being the most supported institution and the best funded institution in America, then maybe it’s time to replace military leadership with leaders that can. Americans may be culturally warlike (in a rebellious sort of way) but they are not the maintainers of the military service’s warrior ethos. It is not their job to restore it.
Warriors and Citizens
When Veterans toast their fallen comrades this month, they should do so knowing they went forward at the bidding of America’s civilian leaders with an ethos crafted by the military to execute their presidential and congressionally mandated mission. By doing so they exhibited the warrior ethos. They inherently know that holidays like Veterans Day and Fourth of July inherently infer pride in our warriors and warriors’ ethos as well as the nation’s commitment to freedom and liberty. As do each service’s birthday celebrations. Veterans know that they experienced the warrior ethos and our active-duty members know they are the true keepers and maintainers of it. They should never blame the society they defend for diminishing that ethos or charge it with restoring the ethos. Nor should the American public be conned into becoming the “restorer of the warrior ethos.” Americans may like to think of themselves as Spartans, but at heart we are Athenians. Veteran’s day is upon us. It’s time to raise a glass to our fallen and thank those that carry forward the warrior ethos. May God bless those who gave all, some, and those who will do so in the future. Thank you for your service.
Benjamin Lawless, a retired United States Marine Officer, is a graduate student at American University studying U.S. Foreign Policy