"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 1 June 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Guns and Butter



As an Army medic serving on the

Japanese island of Okinawa in the

spring of 1945, Desmond Doss

treated the wounded during many

days of the most brutal combat

in the history of the US Army.

Japanese soldiers shot at the

unarmed medic, fired mortar

shells at him, threw hand

grenades at him. A grenade

filled his legs with shrapnel

and tore his arm apart. Doss

used a broken rifle stock to

splint his own compound fracture

and gave up his place on a

stretcher to make room for a

soldier who seemed to be more

seriously wounded. Then he

crawled hundreds of yards to the

medical aid station. Fifty-four

years later, the editors of

Soldiers, a glossy news magazine

published by, for, and about the

Army, thought carefully about

Doss' story and arrived at a

magnanimous conclusion: Awfully

impressive - for a sissy. Doss,

it turns out, had told his draft

board that "his religious

beliefs and respect for human

life made it impossible for him

to kill another person." The

board classified him as a

conscientious objector, before

agreeing to his request to serve

in an unarmed combat role. The

former medic's Medal of Honor

citation, Soldiers explains,

"illustrates the gallantry of a

man who had once been

dubbed a coward."


On a similar subject, a letter

to the editor in the same issue

of Soldiers offers a bitter

complaint about a previous Medal

of Honor profilee. Mary Walker

may very well have been awarded

the thing, writes Second

Lieutenant Jeremy S.

McCallister, but she obviously

didn't earn it. "Political

correctness," the lieutenant

helpfully explains, "is on the

rampage everywhere."



The gap - really, the chasm -

between military and civilian

cultures is a well-explored bit

of terrain. Wall Street Journal

reporter Thomas Ricks parlayed

his reporting on the military

into a highly regarded 1997 book,

Making the Corps, that explored the

subject (or a discrete slice of

the subject) in great depth.

Ricks tells story after story

about the cultural isolation of

a Marine Corps that views

itself as a nation within a

nation, stronger and smarter

than the great undisciplined

masses. There's a cost to that

kind of partitioning: Ricks

describes Marines who feel

pretty sure that they'll

ultimately be forced to fight -

literally fight, go to war with

- their own countrymen,

cleansing the nation of its

fifth column of cultural

Marxists. The gap between

military and civilians, Ricks

argues, threatens to pit the two

against each other in a way

that could ultimately threaten

the nation's constitutionally

sanctioned civilian hegemony.


It is not a bad argument,

especially the way Ricks builds

it. But it's really kind of odd

to watch what happens when the

military does try to participate

in the civilian culture of the

day. The April 1999 issue of

Soldiers, for example, carries

several pages in celebration of

the Army's observance of Earth

Day. "By considering the

environment in everything you

do," the magazine explains to

its uniformed readers, "you help

sustain the Army's training

lands, protect the nation's

natural resources, and ensure a

safe and healthy environment for

fellow soldiers, their families,

and our civilian communities."

The accompanying art is a

photograph of a kneeling soldier

in camouflage fatigues and face

paint, taking aim with a

bayonet-tipped assault rifle.

Kill 'em all - and remember, if

you brought it into the

battlefield, make sure you take

it with you when you leave.


One page prior, a photo caption

explains that an Army missile

unit won an award for "pollution

prevention in weapon system

acquisition." The photo shows

one of those sensitively

obtained weapons in use,

launched from an attack

helicopter into a verdant

grove of trees.



Despite the growing distrust of

civilian authority described by

Ricks and others, the strangely

impressive, thoroughly

disturbing thing about the

military is the well-nurtured

tendency it has to salute

crisply and perform every task

it is given with immediate,

enthusiastic vigor. This can be

helpful when the need arises to

liberate Auschwitz or convince a

hostile superpower to leave you

the hell alone. When the line

between civil and military

functions is breached, however,

this good thing becomes

very, very bad - and in a

cheerful and sunlit way:

Just doing my job, sir!


The November 1997 issue of

Soldiers offers a favorite

example; the always enthusiastic

magazine describes the upright

and shining-eyed efforts of the

California National Guard in the


War on Drugs: "Few things are as

intimidating to suspected

criminals," chirps Soldiers, "as

the sudden appearance of a

camouflaged light armored

vehicle bearing law enforcement

officers." Photographs

throughout the spread on the

weekend warriors' participation

in civil law enforcement show

uniformed Guard troops

diligently searching a car

trunk, drilling into the floor

of a commercial truck to hunt

for hidden compartments, and

opening civilian mail in the

work area of a postal facility.

("Once only mail from certain

countries was inspected; now

all Pacific Rim parcels

are checked.")


But, of course, why not use the

military to enforce the law?

What, you want to segregate the

military from the mainstream of

American life? Or would you

rather they fully participated?



But perhaps this isn't

surprising territory for a

nation that views its military

as a sort of Peace Corps

with guns. The Washington Post reported

recently that US Army General

Wesley Clark - NATO's "supreme

military commander" - is

privately making a certain

bitter joke about his own

leadership of the alliance's war

against the Serbian regime. In

conversations with friends, the

newspaper says, Clark is

referring to himself as "Wes

Westmoreland. Two months

into a military campaign that

was supposed to demonstrate the

might of a coalition of just and

decent nations, the career

military officials tasked with

bombing Serbia into peaceful

stability are showing their

strain with increasing clarity.


In that context, it's worth

noting that the people least

enthusiastic about NATO's

bombing campaign were - from the

very beginning - the people who

were supposed to be running it.

Newspapers have widely reported

that US military officials

warned their bosses about the

probable ineffectiveness of a

war waged purely from the air

against forces deployed almost

entirely on the ground. It's not

so surprising that their

objections were ignored: The new

generation of former antiwar

activists, now serving as

heads of state, has decided to

use the military as something

other than the military: Attack,

but don't, like, attack. And so

they're stuck with wars that,

having never really begun, don't

ever end. And so are the rest of

us. The antiwar activists,

having convinced themselves that

the hammer can be used to gently

turn screws into the wall, can't

find many reasons not to go to

war, or to sort-of-war. The

bloodthirsty generals,

meanwhile, keep trying to avoid

going to war: They apparently

understand the costs and the



The military is very much the

island apart described by Thomas

Ricks, and the people who

compose it appear, despite the

public face they sometimes put

on it, to understand that they

do a kind of work that doesn't

fit into society. It's an

instinct worth respecting. The

failure of understanding between

civilian and military cultures

probably does threaten civilians

in the long run, but it seems

more likely to threaten us with

the backlash from all of the

enemies we make as we pick

half-fights overseas, stirring

up resentment without harming

the ability of the people we

attack to do something about it.

The cost of that gap can be

found in the decision to fire

cruise missiles at Afghanistan

and the Sudan for the

purpose of sending a message.

Led by a national security team

with no military experience -

and no apparent clue that

bombing isn't actually a form of

good-witch magic - the United

States has armed itself with one

awfully expensive stick. With a

little imagination, you can

understand the frustration of

the people assigned to go around

poking people with it.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers



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