Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Me and the Major…

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By Wiz

Apropos of this flap over McChrystal and the general discussion of the proper relationship between civilians and the military, Eric, over at Edge of the American West points out that Americans haven’t always thought that people who serve in the military were more honorable than those who served in civilian branches of government. ” This was not always the case; the US military used fairly regularly to be regarded as a home of reprobates and jobbers of the worst sort.”

Eric is certainly correct, at least about antebellum America. I happen to be reading Thoreau’s journal right now, and this is what he has to say about the Marines in Boston: “The marines and the militia whose bodies were used lately were not men of sense or principle; in a high moral sense they were not men at all.” In another passage he describes newspaper editors as “their life is [as] abject even as the marines.” Walt Whitman also grouped soldiers together with other forms of monarchial oppression: “the frighten’d monarchs come back, Each comes in state, with his train—hangman, priest, tax-gatherer, Soldier, lawyer, lord, jailer, and sycophant.”

This isn’t to say, of course, that Thoreau is right or that we should disrespect individuals who join the armed forces. But of course, this McChrystal flap is a good reminder that civilian rule should take precedent. And there is a big difference between the common soldier, who are mostly fine people, and the generals. It seems to me that a healthy democracy will maintain a good deal of skepticism about the generals and admirals. We should be skeptical of all our elites, but especially those with the power of life or death. The hero-worship of generals like David Petraeus always reminded me of Rome right as the Republic crumbled.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

June 23, 2010 at 18:14

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