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  • Shaun Rieley

The Dangers of a Woke Military

Updated: 5 days ago

The Clarksvillian

It is utterly shocking that the Department of Defense would target a private citizen for voicing an opinion, and then celebrate its attack using words that would ordinarily be reserved for enemies of the country. When it attempts to “smite” citizens for the mere act of questioning a matter of public policy, the military moves into shockingly dangerous territory.


Recently, Tucker Carlson poked a hornet’s nest by daring to challenge President Joe Biden’s comments regarding the current priorities of the U.S. military.


I hesitate to wade into this debate, in part because I dislike using my status as a veteran of the Iraq war as a cudgel, and in part because the issue tends to raise emotions in a way that makes rational discourse difficult. But after watching Carlson be upbraided for his comments for over a week, including through official Pentagon channels, I am compelled to speak up in his defense. And because, apparently, only those who have served are permitted an opinion on this question (and others like it), I am forced to point out that I do have the requisite experience to be allowed a position.


Carlson’s comments, which criticized a policy prioritizing the development of “maternity flight suits” among other things, were widely labeled “sexist” and “misogynistic” and were said to have been “mocking pregnant service members.”


Even more striking, however, was the fact that the Pentagon itself joined the chorus: Spokesman John Kirby called Carlson’s remarks “ridiculous,” and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed “revulsion”—comments an official Department of Defense press release headline described as “smit[ing]” the cable news host.


Leave aside the implication that a category of person traditionally considered off-limits for targeting in acts of war—pregnant women—will be put forth as front-line combat troops by an ostensibly civilized country. It is utterly shocking that the Department of Defense would target a private citizen for voicing an opinion, and then celebrate its attack using words that would ordinarily be reserved for enemies of the country. This portends a shift away from the care that the military has always taken to retain its nonpartisan, nonpolitical disposition vis à vis American citizens.


This traditional position had been carefully maintained for good reason. Standing militaries always sit uneasily, even paradoxically, within a liberal democracy: They are essentially authoritarian institutions, but they are established and maintained by liberal democratic governments charged with the task of defending political and individual liberty. While liberal democracies emphasize individual rights, inclusivity, and equality, military effectiveness requires exclusivity, group identity, and hierarchy. To reinforce the collective and hierarchical nature of military institutions, and to facilitate the formation of group identity, the armed forces make use of thick symbolism: uniforms, rank insignia, unit insignia, customs and courtesies, personal grooming standards, and the like. Meanwhile, liberal democracies tend toward a suspicion of tradition and the thick social symbolism it requires.


Until recently, this paradox went mostly unremarked in American society. While the liberal left of the 1960s viewed the military with suspicion, even revulsion, an earlier generation of progressives saw little tension in “making the world safe for democracy” through the use of military force. And in any case, the paradox seemed unresolvable. Liberal democracies, like all political communities, need effective—exclusive, cohesive, hierarchical—militaries to defend them against aggressors, regardless of the tension with the broader society.


The primary political problem to be addressed in this was how to ensure that a standing military did not become dangerous to the liberties of those they were to protect, especially guarding against the threat of military coups and imposition of martial law. The question is of ancient pedigree: In the Republic, Plato discusses the difficulty of creating a warrior class that is effective at repelling enemies and yet is gentle toward friends and fellow citizens. And the question caused much debate during the framing of the American Constitution as well.


In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that the love of equality which defines democracies tends to render any inequality present in society unacceptable, particularly as conditions become more equal. As conditions have become more equal in American society, even inequalities previously thought of as natural, and therefore intractable, have become offensive to Americans who are insistent on leveling all distinctions.


Tocqueville also pointed out that, while the commercial disposition of democratic societies will generally render them less war-like, democratic armies will tend to become more desirous of war given that the equality of social conditions offers fewer opportunities to distinguish oneself. The military service—and wartime service in particular—remains one of the few sources of genuine honor in democratic societies.


In recent years, the idea of military service as an obligation of citizens—and specifically male citizens—to contribute to the common defense has become obscured. Instead, it is increasingly seen as just another job that one might choose, or not. I suspect it is not coincidental that this mirrors the approach to the wars that the military has been asked to wage over the past two decades. There is no reason to ask the country at large to sacrifice for the war effort because the wars are optional: Primarily ideological rather than existential, they may be fought, or not.


Warfighting has therefore fallen on a small percentage of the overall population. This has resulted in an growing divide between those who serve or have served and society at large. In many cases, this divide has become a kind of hero worship: Military service is revered precisely because it is the kind of thing that most people do not, and would not, choose to do.

Viewed this way, it follows that excluding anyone from any aspect of service—such as, for example, limiting combat arms roles to males—amounts to denying them the opportunity to earn distinction. Combine this with the rise of identity politics, and this denial of opportunity is seen to extend far beyond the individuals immediately effected; it impacts anyone who might happen to identify with them as well.


This seems to be the rationale, for example, behind the Pentagon’s official press release responding to Carlson, which asserts that “the American military works best when it represents all the American people.” On this account, the military is, first and foremost, an egalitarian and representative body, rather than an exclusive and hierarchical one.


But we are entitled to ask: Is this true? Could viewing the military as a representative body, and members of the military as representatives of their respective identity group, make for a more effective service? The short answer is: No. An effective military is not identical with a representative one, and neither does the military exist to be a representative institution. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth.


Carlson’s comments effectively highlight the tension between the social requirements of an effective military and the democratic social ideals of inclusion and equality. He was attacked for comments drawing attention back to the military’s purpose for existing: to defend the country and its citizens from existential threats. When this end is subverted in favor of ideological pursuits disconnected from the realities of warfare and statecraft, the military does risk becoming less effective, because priorities are being assigned based on a rationale other than the fighting and winning of wars.


As Tocqueville saw, the ideological drive toward absolute social equality always poses certain risks to liberty. Until recent times, the United States has thrived in part because its actual pragmatic practices have been better than simplistic egalitarian theory. Hierarchical institutions—including, most prominently, the military (but also religious and educational institutions as well)—were maintained and even praised as indispensable supports of a free society, despite their tension with egalitarianism. The Carlson incident reveals that this may no longer be the case.


At its most benign this trend may yield public policy that is inadvisable or even immoral, such as expecting that pregnant women will fight in our wars. But an ideologically partisan military poses a unique threat to a free society, in ways that ideological capture of other institutions (detrimental as it may be) does not. Not only does it potentially undermine its ability to defend the country from external dangers, but it also poses a direct threat to American citizens it views as ideological foes.


When it attempts to “smite” citizens for the mere act of questioning a matter of public policy, the Department of Defense moves into shockingly dangerous territory. The danger of democracies is that they may come to prefer equality in slavery to inequality in liberty.

Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (March 2021).


The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse?


The featured image is courtesy of The Washington Times.


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