»  National Review

April 16th, 2001

  Is This All We Can Be?


You may have seen the following TV spot: A soldier is running alone across the desert, carrying a backpack but no rifle. Helicopters swoop overhead. A squad of soldiers runs past, moving in a direction opposite to that of the lone runner. Voiceover: "Even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers like me, I am my own force … The might of the U.S. Army doesn't lie in numbers. It lies in me. I am an Army of One."

To anyone with the slightest acquaintance with military life, this recruiting ad is very peculiar indeed. One of the most fundamental truths about soldiering is that, with a few partial exceptions like snipers, a single warrior acting alone is of very little use to the cause he is fighting for. Ground warfare is carried on by units, of which the smallest that has much practical value is the platoon.

A great deal of military training is directed towards creating and maintaining unit cohesion. Parade ground drill, for example — marching, turning, and manipulating weapons in formation — which seems very pointless when you first have to do it, is designed to make you understand that the very movements of your body belong to a larger organism: the squad, the platoon, the company. An Army of One? How is that supposed to work? Seeing that solitary soldier being an "army of one" out on his own in the desert, I could hear the voice of my own sergeant-instructor roaring: "GET BACK TO YOUR UNIT, SOLDIER!" (I have omitted an adjective or two.)

For more than 20 years, the principal recruiting slogan of the U.S. Army was "Be all you can be," which the trade journal Advertising Age ranked as second on its list of "Top Ten Jingles of the Century," after McDonald's "You deserve a break today." I had always thought "Be all you can be" about as far as military recruiters could reasonably go to accommodate the sensibilities of a narcissistic age without completely taking leave of reality. It tells you that you can develop yourself — your skills, your character — while not excluding the possibility that you might do this by submerging your individual personality in something larger. Why drop this successful slogan?

I headed off to my local Army recruiting office to ask them. Hearing that I was a magazine writer, the desk sergeant laughed nervously, broke eye contact, and told me the Army had an excellent press office to handle that sort of thing. He commenced to write down their phone number for me. I nagged him about "Army of One." Did he, obviously a soldier of many years' service — he was in his mid-thirties — really think it an honest message to put out for the purpose of attracting recruits into what is, after all, by definition and necessity, an extremely regimented organization? The sergeant allowed that he might not have chosen the slogan himself, if asked, but added: "It's addressed to young people, people a lot younger than me. I don't know how they think. The service depends on professionals to tell them that kind of stuff. You know, Madison Avenue types. They do surveys, they do focus groups, they come up with a slogan. They give it to me, I work with it." Fair enough.

The other services are revamping their recruiting material, too. The Navy wants to "Accelerate Your Life," having dropped its three-year-old slogan: "Let the journey begin" as being too wounding to the self-esteem of prospective sailors, who feel, at age 17 or so, that their journey is already well begun. The Air Force is still taking presentations from advertising agencies, hoping to roll out its own new campaign this summer. The Marines have long since stopped asking for "a few good men." That, of course, was "exclusionary" — what about women? So now young people are invited to join: "The few. The proud. The Marines."

As that recruiting sergeant explained, the armed services of today get their slogans the same way our political parties get their platforms: surveys, focus groups. In the Army's case the research work was done by a Chicago agency, Leo Burnett, U.S.A. They learned that young people aged 14 to 24 see military culture as a threat to their own individuality, and military training — hollering Drill Instructors, push-ups in the mud, jumping out of planes — as scary. Now, you may say that you could have told them this for nothing. You might add that military culture exists precisely to mold youngsters to its norms, not to adapt itself to theirs. You might further observe that it is precisely the fear and challenge of arduous training that lures many young people into the military life.

That last observation, while true, is unfortunately not true enough for a modern society. If you identify all those young Americans who thrill at the idea of organized combat — of killing people, blowing things up, and facing great bodily risks in the service of their country — you will find that you have about half a million of them, practically all young men. You are then faced with three problems: one, this is not enough to supply the country's defense needs, as currently defined; two, not many of your recruits are willing to do the ancillary tasks an army depends on (cooking, construction, dentistry, accounting, recruiting and so on); and three, politically powerful lobbies — feminists, homosexuals, even the disabled — will be enraged that the force you have assembled does not look sufficiently like America.

Hence the surveys and the focus groups. It is easy to poke fun at these New Age recruiting slogans, and to observe that they are not likely to attract warrior spirits. The fact is that the fiercer kinds of warrior spirits will find their way into the services whatever you do. Elite units like the U.S. Marines are the ones with the least problems meeting their recruiting goals. It is the less glamorous service arms that are in trouble. In 1999 the Army had one of its worst ever recruiting deficits, falling short of its 74,500 goal by 9 per cent. Goals were met in 2000, but only by the offer of lavish sign-up bonuses and college financing programs. If recruiting ads are un-warriorly, it is because true-born warriors do not need much recruiting.

The temptation here, to which the service chiefs have unfortunately succumbed, is to take the warriors for granted and concentrate all efforts on bringing in those others. (Who can, of course, through appropriate training, acquire enough of the warrior spirit to be useful in battle.) It has been all the easier to take the elite combat units for granted because these are the very units whose services, in peacetime, are least required. An army, a navy or an air force must be many things, but one of the things it cannot help but be is a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies need to keep themselves up and running, and to do that, the clerks and quartermasters and cooks and computer programmers are essential. The pure warriors are, in peacetime, not essential.

A good example of this mis-directed attention has been the recent controversy over Ranger berets. This, I confess, is a topic dear to my heart, for personal reasons. I always liked the beret, and thought it smart. A plain black beret is standard issue in the British army, to officers and Other Ranks alike, but most officers have the option to wear a peaked "Service Dress" cap when not actually in the field. I liked the beret and never, in my admittedly very brief military career, acquired an S.D. cap. My passing-out group photograph from Frimley Park officer training school shows myself in the lone beret and 39 other graduates in S.D. caps. I was an army of one beret.

U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki apparently feels the same way I do about berets. Last October he announced the issue of black berets to all soldiers in the army, effective June 14th, 2001. Until now, the only soldiers wearing a black beret have been the elite 75th Ranger Regiment. To earn that Ranger beret you have to volunteer at least three times — for the army, for airborne, and for the Rangers. Then you must complete three weeks of very punishing training, with forced marches, live-fire obstacle courses and hand-to-hand fighting. That is the point: the beret is earned. Other elite units also have distinctive berets. The Special Forces wear a green beret, made famous by that John Wayne movie. Paratroopers have a maroon beret (the red beret worn by Alan Ladd in the movie The Paratrooper is that of the equivalent British unit). Berets, in the U.S. armed services, mark out the warrior elites.

Shinseki's announcement let loose a storm of outrage. Thousands of letters, e-mails and phone calls poured into the Pentagon from around the country. In February, two retired Rangers marched the 700 miles from Fort Benning, GA, to Washington, to petition George W. Bush for presidential intervention. It has not helped that, in order to meet the June 14th deadline, manufacture of the new general-issue berets has been farmed out to five countries: 300,000 of them are to be made in Communist China! The army's response to this storm has been a plan to have all personnel earn this new beret … by passing a written exam in Army history.

The problem with taking real fighting skills for granted is that by doing so, you impact numbers as surely as you do when you fail to meet recruiting targets. Those responsible for keeping up military numbers must look not only at recruiting, but also at retention. Here things are desperate, though of course the services are reluctant to talk about it. A survey done in April 2000 showed that young captains are leaving the Army in droves after five to ten years — a very bad sign, as this is a key rank on the promotion ladder. Once you have made Captain, the door is open to real command opportunities. To resign at this point, you need to have really strong negative feelings about the service. So they do: while routine grumbles about pay and conditions featured in the survey, bitter criticism of Army leadership was more common, most especially of the leaderships' diluting or denying of a true soldierly ethos.

Retention problems are acute in the other services, for the same reasons. Stephanie Gutmann, in her 2000 book The Kinder, Gentler Military (a must-read in this context, by the way), reports that schools for U.S. Navy flight instructors are known informally as "American Airlines U," because of the speed with which fliers quit the service for jobs with commercial airlines after receiving their million-dollar training. In another striking passage, Gutmann analyzes a survey done by the Navy in 1998, to find out how many sailors were planning to leave the service, and why. The results make it clear that personal and economic reasons for wanting to leave the service — this, let it be noted, at a time when the U.S. economy was in the middle of its greatest boom ever — were dwarfed by dissatisfaction with the change in military culture and lack of confidence in military leadership.

This hemorrhaging of trained personnel is, like those feeble and dishonest advertising campaigns, a symptom of the great crisis in morale that overwhelmed the American military in the 1990s. Much of the blame for that crisis must, of course, be placed on the Clinton administration, who put the U.S. military in the hands of, and under the scrutiny of, politicians who were not merely militarily illiterate, but, in many cases, actually hostile to military values. It is not all Clinton's fault, however. The preposterous Tailhook witch-hunt, for example, started up under the first Bush administration. The principal "victim" of that incident, Paula Coughlin, was invited to the White House to be consoled by President Bush before TV cameras, and there were reports that the president wept on hearing of the indignities she endured.

Taking an even wider view, some degree of military decline is inevitable in a long peace. The Anglo-Saxon nations especially have always had a problem taking military affairs seriously, except when the nation is in danger. The British held down a mighty empire with an all-volunteer army, whose common soldiers were regarded, in their own country, as beyond the pale of civilized society, a state of affairs famously captured by Kipling in his poem "Tommy":

I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here…"

In the first part of his novel Coming Up for Air, which is a thinly disguised memoir of his own childhood in the years before WWI, George Orwell describes the reactions of people in a small English country town on hearing that a certain young man had "listed for a soldier" — that is, enlisted. "'Just think of it! A fine young fellow like that!' It just shocked them. Listing for a soldier, in their eyes, was the exact equivalent of a girl's going on the streets."

The United States, too, has usually preferred not to think about military matters unless it was absolutely necessary to do so. Following WW1, demilitarization was rapid and almost total. To read about the careers of American military men — Douglas Macarthur, for example — in the 1920s and 1930s is very depressing. The utter indifference to military innovation of the U.S. public, their elected representatives, and even the service chiefs themselves, was demonstrated in 1925 by the Billy Mitchell affair (of which quite a good movie was made, with Gary Cooper). Korea and the Cold War postponed this psychological de-militarization after WW2, but it has now set in with a vengeance.

We are by no means back to Kipling's England yet. The U.S. public expresses a high degree of admiration for the services when polled, and recent years have seen several successful war movies — The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, etc. This is an abstract, voyeuristic appreciation, though, not a participatory one. A better index of how comfortable we are with the arts of war is the entertainment medium we let into our homes, TV, from which military sitcoms have now disappeared. I think the last was CBS's Major Dad, of which the concluding episodes were filmed in 1993.

The military are acutely aware of the public mood. Mention Saving Private Ryan and they whip back at you with the demented ex-military psychos in American Beauty and Dead Poets' Society, or the apparently bottomless appetite of the public for movies in which clever lawyers outwit secretive, unimaginative military professionals: The General's Daughter, A Few Good Men, etc. The significance of the Clinton presidency, to military people, was not so much that the title "Commander in Chief" was for eight years held by the most un-military human being this side of Tiny Tim, but that the American people, knowing what they knew, re-elected that person. No wonder the military feels unloved:

Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap.

With a new administration in Washington, there is hope that some of the problems of the last few years will at least be squarely faced, and perhaps fixed. Most fundamentally, the word must go out that the services will no longer be used as a theater for peacetime social engineering. That is not what they are for. As British General Sir Charles Guthrie remarked, on retiring from that country's General Staff early this year: "The duty of the Chiefs of Staff [is] to keep the best forces for when times are really terrible. The job is not to structure forces for the good times. You can't have two structures: one for good times and one for bad."

In particular, the administration needs to recognize that many of the ideologically-driven sex integration efforts of the 1990s were mistaken, and destructive of military culture, and must be rolled back. Of course, this is much more easily said than done. The U.S.A. has not ceased to have a feminist movement, and that movement's desire to assault the "patriarchy" in its last bastion has not diminished. Nor has the nation ceased to have a litigation industry, ever-vigilant for the opportunity to turn ideology into cold cash. (Paula Coughlin got $5.6 million.)

We have the advantage, however, that many of the things that were just proposals ten years ago have now been tried, and the results widely publicized. No reasonable person can now deny that coed basic training is only possible with drastically lowered standards; nor that if men and women are put together in the same units, or on the same ships, a lot of sexual activity will result; nor that unit cohesion, without which no military mission can be carried out, is seriously degraded by the presence of open sexual tensions. I believe the U.S. public and their representatives in Congress are much more ready now than in the 1990s to accept some firm defense of traditional military culture.

As a beginning, I suggest that the administration lay down three markers without further delay. First, scotch the rumors that women are to be be allowed to serve in the infantry. Women never have been admitted to this branch of the service, and the infantry training center at Fort Benning currently has no women on staff. Let those things stand. Second, firmly rule out the admission of women to submarine duty. The interior of a submarine is a very tiny, very crowded space, in which the adjustments necessary to accommodate female crew, as disruptive as they have been on surface warships, would be magnified a hundred-fold. Third, fire General Shinseki and rescind the beret order.

If I might be permitted to add a further suggestion of my own, one I have not seen aired elsewhere: I believe the much-discussed rift between the military and the rest of society might be closed a little by allocating more resources to Junior ROTC. I got my own first taste of the military life as a schoolboy in the British equivalent of JROTC, and enjoyed it very much. I think many American parents, now we have come through to the other side of the "Great Disruption" described in Francis Fukuyama's book of that name — the upheavals in personal and social morality that occurred from about 1965 to 1990 — would welcome the opportunities for structure, challenge and character training offered to their children by the military, and that if more young people could enjoy those opportunities, the military and its values, which are among the indispensable core values of any civilized society, could be knitted back into the common culture, for the enrichment of all.