Newsreal: The army of the right

The Wall Street Journal's defense correspondent investigates today's military and finds it becoming an increasingly right-wing institution.

Published January 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- Last November, Assistant Army Secretary Sara Lister was forced to resign after her description of U.S. Marines as "extremists" raised howls of protest in the Pentagon and Congress. "Wherever you've got extremists, you get some risk of total disconnection with society, and that's a little dangerous," she said at an Oct. 26 seminar sponsored by Harvard University's John T. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies in Baltimore.

For Thomas E. Ricks, defense correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Lister's comments were not all that wide off the mark. In his just-published book, "Making the Corps" (Scribner), Ricks takes a long, hard look at today's military and comes up with some disturbing conclusions. While the U.S. military still produces highly trained fighters, it also turns out often slovenly, undisciplined support troops. For Ricks, the current spate of military sex scandals comes as no surprise. He quotes one soldier writing to his recruiter in New York, saying: "Sir: You told me there would be no sex at Fort Jackson (South Carolina). BOY, WERE YOU WRONG!"

Most disturbing, however, is Ricks' conclusion that the theoretically nonpartisan U.S. military has become a bastion of right-wing Republicanism. Ricks, a member of Harvard University's Senior Advisory Council on the Project on U.S. Civil-Military relations, finds that the politicization of the armed forces goes far beyond the military's contempt for its current commander in chief. It extends to the way the military sees itself standing in opposition to an increasingly degenerate civilian society. And in that gap, Ricks warns, lies the threat of American-style militarism that is not going to disappear with the next election.

Salon spoke with Ricks about the rightward drift in America's first line of defense.

You say that the military is becoming politicized across the board. But where is it most apparent?

I find it especially intense among the junior officers, which is to say lieutenants, captains and majors, and especially among white male junior officers.

Politicized in what way?

It's an expressly partisan politicization, where the identification is expressly with conservative Republicanism, where there is a disdain for the Democratic president, even though he is the commander in chief. But more broadly, it is a cultural conservatism that believes that American society is going to hell in a handbasket, that this is a degenerate society, that this is society in collapse.

Do you agree with former Assistant Army Secretary Sara Lister's comment that the Marines are full of "extremists"?

Certainly, there are Marines who carry these views to extremes. So you get the statement that I read in the Marine Corps Gazette a couple of years ago: "The next war we fight will be on American soil."

Has this politicization affected how the military does its job?

There is now less of a willingness, when the military loses the policy debate, to salute smartly, move out and follow that order. You saw that in Bosnia a lot, where the military dragged its feet and actively sought to undermine national policy.

In what way?

The military never bought into the administration's policy, which held that the Bosnian Muslims were the victims of aggression. The military constantly argued that all sides were equally guilty of aggression, that there were no good guys. Well, when you look at the indictments handed down by the International War Crimes Tribunal, that's not the case.

What are the roots of this politicization?

They go back to the Vietnam War, which resulted in the end of conscription. We got instead an all-volunteer force that self-selects among people who want to be in the military. You no longer have the leavening influence of the draftee who becomes an officer -- or the guy who becomes an officer to avoid the draft. Our last chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili, was a draftee. The guy before him, Gen. Colin Powell, was an ROTC kid, who came out of the very unmilitary City College of New York.

The second thing the Vietnam War did was to destroy the pro-defense wing of the Democratic Party. Under Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party showered so many goodies on the military that it made the military feel really wanted and relieved after going though a very bleak couple of decades. So there was a natural identification with Reagan Republicanism.

And a hatred of Clinton because he was seen as a classic draft dodger.

Not just that.
There is also contempt for his character, the belief that he is an
adulterous liar. He doesn't uphold the values that the military really admires.
Clinton is the guy who's able to talk himself out of anything, the guy who
doesn't have any absolute standards. What the military really admires are
absolute standards, which is why you'll find military people admiring a
conscientious objector, the guy who is willing to go to jail for what he
believes. What they can't admire is the guy who
sidesteps the draft through quibbling, through letters, through playing
footsie with the ROTC and then withdrawing, as Clinton did. His attempt to have
it both ways to preserve his political viability just turned the stomachs
of military people.
And after one week in office, he pushes for gays in the military.

Actually, he brought it up earlier, when he met with Gen. Powell at
Blair House before the inauguration. And had Clinton said at that point, "Gen.
Powell, I know you disagree with this, but I'm giving you an order here.
Figure out a way to get this done and move out smartly," Powell would have
done it. But Clinton wanted
the military to go along without making him push them. So they pushed back hard, and had allies in Congress. And that set the stage for a military
that went off the reservation.

Haven't soldiers always been to the right of center, politically?

Some interesting numbers have come out in the last couple months on this.
Ole Holsti, a professor at Duke University, has been polling
military officers on their political views as part of a larger poll of
members of American elites for the past 20 years. In 1976, the senior military officers he polled were one-third Republican. Today, it's two-thirds. Liberals have all but evaporated. You go from a
conservative-to-liberal ratio among senior ranks of 4-to-1 in 1976 to a
ratio of 23-to-1 in 1996. That's even with the injection of females and
minorities into the senior ranks. That tells me that the white male officer
corps is about 95 percent Republican.
Apart from gays in the military, what effect has the issue of women in the military had on this politicization?

It's made for considerable confusion about what the culture of the military should be. There was an Army colonel heading up the leadership department at West Point who
was fired, among other reasons, because he talked about combat too much.
The charge was that this was exclusionary against women since women are not
allowed in combat, and therefore it amounted to sexual harassment.

I'm beginning to understand why the military has drifted over to the

Absolutely. The gender issue really is splitting the U.S. military -- far more than gays in the military ever will. It's the dividing line, much more
than rank or race. I remember I was looking at Charlie Company, 10th
Forward Support Battalion in the 10th Mountain Division, a unit that
deploys frequently overseas, and the issue was women who became pregnant.
One officer who was complaining to me about the number of pregnancies said
there had to be an agreement with the women that if they came into this
unit, they couldn't become pregnant. Now that kind of rule produces all
kinds of lawsuits -- a woman's right to chose, to become pregnant and so
on. These women get to say they can't deploy, so goodbye. So what you have
is somebody who went through all the rehearsals, but on game day, they were
busy. And that really antagonized a lot of males in the unit.

What are some of the other gender issues that are aggravating the
military's rightward drift?

The feeling that women are held to less rigorous physical standards
than men are. And the belief that, ultimately, this is going to result in
people getting killed. Recently, the Army instituted "equal effort"
physical testing, which stipulates, for example, that if a man of a certain
age and physical size can carry 100 pounds, his female counterpart should
be able to lift only 65 pounds. And that 65 pounds amounts to an effort
equal to the guy who lifts 100. Well, on the battlefield, "equal effort"
doesn't matter. If, in the heat of battle, a woman is needed to carry a
.50-caliber machine gun and she can't, all of her "equal effort" isn't going
to stop the enemy. Ultimately, combat effectiveness should be the test of a
military, and it really upsets people when the test isn't combat
effectiveness but some politically correct formula.

What about sex?

When you
put men and women together in units, they are going to have sex. And when
that happens, the cohesion of units declines. Those soldiers who
haven't hooked up with a woman are resentful and bring charges against
those who have. These guys then get busted, and often the unit loses an
effective leader because of a regulation involving women, and then there's
more resentment. And the tendency of the men is to seek comfort in right-wing
politics. They feel right wingers like Rush Limbaugh are the only ones out
there who sympathize with them on these issues.

Is there a racial element to this politicization?

Not really. You have to acknowledge that
the military has done better than civilian society in addressing the issues
of race. At the same time, I have to say that a hard-right
military is not a comfortable place for many black and female officers.

Are there any other issues looming that could further this politicization?

I've heard people speculate that the next great
battle will be the right of the disabled to serve. I can easily see that
argument being made. Indeed, in a high-tech military with a lot of
computerization, a guy in a wheelchair can be the pilot of an unmanned
aerial vehicle just as well as somebody whose legs work. And everybody
expects that the combat skies of the 21st century are going to be dominated
by these unmanned aerial vehicles. In short, this stuff is not going to go

Do you see the military becoming more actively engaged in politics?

Yes, if the military begins to take a different view of
what its job is. There are some people in the Marine
Corps who believe that domestic peacekeeping is a growth industry, that
they are going to be deploying to American cities just as they have been to
Mogadishu and to Port-au-Prince. They look back at the L.A. riots of 1992
as a preamble for future missions. Down at Marine headquarters
at Quantico, Va., there's been a lot of debate and a lot of papers
written over the past two years by officers at the Command and Staff
College about the subject of domestic peacekeeping. Those who believe the
military should get involved in such operations are arguing for the U.S.
military's right to arrest people and to conduct warrantless searches.
We're not thinking in coup terms, are we?

I don't think anybody is talking about a coup. I think you just get an
alienated, isolated military that grows increasingly contemptuous of the
society it protects. You get the military saying its values are the values
the country needs. That's basic militarism, and that's not good for a
democracy. The role of a military in a society is not to define it; it's to
defend it. Overseas, you end up sending conflicting signals to your
adversaries. Ultimately, the country ends up weaker.

In the meantime, if you want to get ahead in today's military, you'd better register as a Republican.

I think so. I think there is a political consensus developing that basically says, "We in the officer club assume that we all agree with Rush Limbaugh; that we
all have contempt for this president; that we all feel misunderstood and
misused by the cultural, political and economical elites of this country;
that we all feel that we're being used for hazy missions in Bosnia, Somalia
and Haiti that aren't really appropriate for who we are and what we're
about." A female colonel named Dana Isakoff was teaching at West
Point and retired earlier than she had planned. When I asked her why, she
said, "Because I'm sick of being the only damned Democrat in the room." I
was out in California recently, and a Marine told me that the commanding
officer of his unit would play Rush Limbaugh's show over the unit's loudspeakers so everybody could listen to it while they worked. This is
unprofessional. I don't care if you like Rush Limbaugh or not. Militarily,
it's unprofessional.
Is the military's gripe about civilian elites
at all justified?

I believe the military is indeed picking up on signals from the people
who run the country. They're aware that these folks -- the people in the
White House, Congress, Wall Street, academia, the media and Hollywood --
tend to see them as stupid, inflexible and prone to violent and aggressive
solutions. That is not true of today's military. Even the enlisted ranks of
this military are more educated than their civilian peers. A
19-year-old in the U.S. military is more likely to have a high school
diploma than the general population. That's because you can't get into the
military these days without a high school diploma. Moreover, the majority
of officers in U.S. military today have advanced degrees. You don't become
a general officer without having at least a master's degree. I ran into an
Army sergeant in Leavenworth recently who had a Ph.D. in history.
I also think the
military suspects, rightly, that when the elites talk about using military
force, no image comes up in their minds of the face of a loved one, a
brother, son, sister or daughter; that when Madeleine
Albright talks about using military force, she's not talking about anybody
she knows. And neither is anybody on the Sunday talk shows. They don't know
military people, and they don't have any sense of the genuine sacrifice
that is made when you send troops off for six months somewhere.
Is anyone -- civilian or military -- addressing these issues?

Not among civilian elites. I think they find the military
not worthy of their discussion or interest. Just a small personal example:
I've been told that the New York Times refuses to review my book in its
Sunday Book Review section because it is not of legitimate interest to the
larger society. In the military, however, there is a growing number of
officers discussing this. One three-star general called me up and told me
that this issue -- the politicization of the military, its alienation from
the larger society and the growing gap between the military and American
elites -- is the single most dangerous problem facing the U.S. military
today. And it's going to get worse when the military wakes up one
day and realizes that the new conservatives of America are not pro-military
either. You're going to get a bitterly antagonized military when, say,
somebody like (Ohio representative and GOP presidential hopeful) John
Kasich decides as president to cut the defense budget by $20 billion

Any solutions?

A few things that
might be done: No. 1, I would love to see the ROTC restored to elite
universities. It would have an enormous effect if kids at Yale actually
knew somebody who was in the U.S. military, if kids from Yale were actually
going to Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti, if the parents of kids at Yale could
say, "Hey, that's my son's roommate going overseas." The presence of such
kids from elite universities would also have a leavening effect on the U.S.
military itself. Not everybody would be from schools like Southern
Methodist University, where the kids are pretty conservative to begin

Secondly, the U.S. military has a pretty large professional
military educational establishment. My suggestion
would be that whenever education is needed for military personnel, send
them to a civilian institution. The reason is that while military people
generally are not going to be serving in Congress 20 years from now, they
should at least know the people who are going to be serving in Congress.
And they will meet them by going to civilian universities.
Thirdly, I would love to see the concerns of elites reconnected to
the society that they're part of. It seems to me that elites by and large
have withdrawn from these greater concerns. Many have moved to communities
where they send their kids to private schools and only see people like
themselves. They have pulled up the drawbridge. When I was researching my book
and went out with Marine recruiters in Boston, it amazed me when they told me
they were not allowed to wear their uniforms into the public high school in
Cambridge, Mass. So they refused to recruit there because they refused to
take off the uniform. They said if this uniform is good enough to die in,
it's good enough to recruit in. Moreover, this happened after a controversy
in Cambridge in which the right of public high school teachers to be openly
gay had been reaffirmed. The recruiters said there's something wrong when
you can be openly gay but can't be openly Marine.
Should we bring back the draft?

I think so. We could have a system
like that in Germany, where the majority of people subject to conscription
do not wind up in the military, but they perform alternative service. They
bring meals to shut-ins, which permits those shut-ins to remain in their
own homes and not have to move into nursing homes. They do things for the
society that are not being done anywhere else. There are a lot of jobs in
society that can be done without aggravating the unions, like city
clean-up, turning vacant lots into parks, cleaning up trash,
the rivers, the environment. This invests these young people in their own
country. They mix with people who are not in
their own narrow little segment of society. One of the beauties of the
draft was that Norman Mailer rubbed shoulders with coal miners from
Pennsylvania and farmboys from the South and loggers from the Northwest.
We've lost that, that sense of mixing everyone up together, despite their
class, race and region.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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