Media Circus

Forget the military's sex scandals. The real scandal is, why are our armed forces so bloated in the first place?

By David Futrelle

Published July 4, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

given all the controversy about sex crimes and misdemeanors in the armed forces of late, it was only a matter of time before it happened: General Halftrack has been sent to sensitivity training. The one-star general, not an actual human being but rather a character in Mort Walker's flaccid, antediluvian comic strip, "Beetle Bailey," is being prodded to mend his lecherous ways. After several decades spent unapologetically ogling the forever-young Miss Buxley, the Washington Times reports, the old goat is actually going to apologize for his impolitic lapses. "It's just that I grew up with certain words and attitudes I thought were OK," the general will explain. "I'm sorry."

Is this the sign that the military has finally "gotten it," as they say, on the question of arms and the woman? Don't bet on it. Walker has made it clear he's "gotten it" only under duress. And while military officials publicly mouth the correct platitudes when talking of the second sex, many of the old boys (and some of the new) are making it clear not only that they don't get it, but that they aren't planning to get it any time soon. Many in the military are digging in for a long siege -- and some of the more gung-ho have begun to plan a kind of cultural counterattack.

The widespread resentment in the ranks over the ongoing sexual battles is symptomatic of a deeper divide. Rarely have relations between soldiers and civilians been so fraught. In a revealing and disturbing piece in the latest Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal military reporter Thomas E. Ricks documents what he calls "the widening gap between today's military and civilian America." Ricks argues that many American soldiers have begun to see themselves as a group apart from -- and superior to -- the society they are supposed to serve. Abandoning the time-honored military tradition of political nonpartisanship, they've become unabashedly activist -- voting in larger percentages than that of the general public, identifying more openly with the far right and less with the American people at large.

Are the armed forces becoming a giant, publicly funded version of our fanatical militias? No, but some in the military are beginning to think more than a little like Timothy McVeigh. At the moment, Ricks notes, one author particularly popular among American Marines is retired Marine Maj. Gene Duncan, whose self-published novels paint a picture of the few and the proud as "special people with special hearts who serve a seemingly ungrateful nation," as a note in one of his books puts it.

Meanwhile, Ricks notes, writers in the Marine Corps Gazette advocate giving military personnel carte blanche to override the Bill of Rights when intervening in domestic disturbances like the Los Angeles riots -- and suggest it might be prudent to disobey orders to enforce gun control laws. Presenting a vision of an immoral, undisciplined America overrun by "cultural radicals," military analyst William Lind argued in the Gazette that "the next real war we fight is likely to be on American soil." Shortly afterwards, retired Marine Col. Michael Wyly spelled out some of the implications of this point of view. "We must be willing to realize that our real enemy is as likely to appear within our own borders as without," he wrote. "If our laws and self-image of our role as military professionals do not allow for [this recognition] we need to change them."

The line between "peacekeeping" at home and abroad has begun to blur: For many Marines, Ricks notes, the "Los Angeles riots of 1992 were a preamble to the Somalia deployment later that year." Politicians of every persuasion have spoken eagerly of enlisting the armed forces in our ongoing drug war. Recently, Marines brought to Texas in a dubious and ill-defined attempt to help border patrols hunt down drug smugglers shot and killed an 18-year-old goat herder. It's still not clear what exactly happened on that stormy evening in late May -- though the Texas Rangers investigating the incident say the explanation the Marines have given so far doesn't make a lot of sense. What is clear is that such "accidents" are an almost inevitable result of the militarization of the War on Drugs. Ironically, the increasing involvement of the military in such domestic adventures is perhaps the clearest example of the paranoid, Big-Brother-is-coming beliefs fervently held by the members of the far right.

It's not hard to see what lies beneath this new concern with internal enemies: a recognition that, with the specter of communism gone, there just isn't all that much for the military to do -- certainly not enough to justify anything close to its current budget. In a massive survey of our still-massive armed forces in the latest issues of Rolling Stone, William Greider notes that we're still planning for the war to end all wars -- despite the fact that nowhere in the wide world can anyone find a truly fearsome foe. Eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Greider notes, we still have a military budget (adjusted for inflation) as large as the one we had at the start of the second Cold War in 1980. Our military bases are overflowing with high-tech tanks and planes and other expensive gadgets -- all dressed up with no place to go. Meanwhile, 1.5 million Americans in active service (joined by another 1.7 million in the reserves) train endlessly for a war that will never come.

"This country has a problem it doesn't wish to face: an excess of killing power," Greider writes. "The Cold War is over but not really, not yet. America is experiencing a deep confusion of purpose at this moment in history. Holding onto a past that is defunct but unable to imagine a different future. There are too many tanks with no place to send them. Too many bombers, too many ships and rockets. Too many men and women in uniform. These soldiers are the best in the world, splendidly trained and capable, brilliantly equipped with dazzling weaponry. But what exactly are they to do now that a general peace is upon us? We don't know the answer -- we don't even want to talk about it."

He's right, of course. But the real danger goes beyond the strain of military spending on the federal budget. If we don't start talking about our military surplus pretty soon, we may find that all the "answers" to this particular dilemma will be provided by folks like Wyly and Lind. The only way to guarantee that we have a real debate about the role of the military in a post-Cold War society is for us to challenge the military on its own terms. We need to stop arguing about the private lives of those in uniform, and to start asking: Why do we need so many privates in the first place?

David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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