A Consumer Society Seeks Expiation Of Guilt (Memorial Day Edition)

Expiation: The act of making satisfaction or atonement for any crime or fault; the extinguishing of guilt by suffering or penalty.

(emphasis added)

We celebrate today’s holiday in solemn recognition of the outsized burden we all collectively impose on our professional military, reservists and families. We also believe today’s ostensibly fulsome ‘honoring’ those who served is a transient, narcissistic gesture to alleviate abstract guilt.

The point of the definition, of course, is that the paeans across the Twitterverse, blogs and TeeVee involve no real suffering or penalty (besides stultification). Sincere and heartfelt efforts still unsatisfying because to honor requires deeper understanding beyond responding to retinal impressions.

(Have no fear, Dear Reader, we’re not going to join in the Franzen fracas that to use Facebook is to never know love. The old French New Wave cinema would have known how to deal with that anyway).

Thanks, Charlie Moskos. You’re Missed.

Why a critique instead of treacly obeisance to Memorial Day iconography? Because we remember Charlie Moskos.

Charlie was a man of energy and thoughtfulness. He remains even after his passing in 2008 America’s pre-eminent scholar on civil-military relations. To the meme/Twitterati he’s remembered probably as the author of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. As a sociologist, he pioneered works on the complexities of the military ethos and its evolving relationship with civilian society. Those working in the field today build upon his foundations.

Charlie was already a titan when Eliot Cohen began his ascent with the still excellent 1990 book “Citizens and Soldiers”. One way or another, anyone reading this blog (all six of you) surely misses Charlie now even if we all don’t know it.

It’s more than disparate numbers participating. As of 2010:

* Active duty AVF is 1,430,895 with 848,000 in reserves. Total around 2,278,895.
* 1968 Tet era, the draft (and volunteer to avoid draft) military was around 4 MM.
* 1944 armed forces was 12 MM. A little over 10 MM as draftees.

Those numbers deceive. Not just because of the failed AVF architecture. (By failure we refer to how the 2001-2008 Administration defeated Shy Meyer’s AVF trip wire mechanism. See STSOZ 1.0, etc. ). And not just because technology, human capital investment/ROI, etc. have changed. Americans today (some sincerely, others feigning) honor a culture and people they don’t understand. And vice versa. Even when heartfelt, it’s misdirected.

A GSM Phone Won’t Work On CDMA

How to address the burgeoning schism? It’s more complicated than a (unhelpful) draft or new forms of ‘National Service’, etc. Or adding another magnet to the SUV rear hatch.

General Schoomaker tried to explain it to Congress 6 years ago. Then the Army sought a temporary increase in end strength for the two wars. (Congress tripped over itself to add more). Today the Marines voluntarily seek to reduce their size. Human capital skill requirements continue to change at even faster tempos. As have cost ratios for force in being let alone deployment. The realities remain true regardless of ideology ala ‘come as you are’, etc.

Most know already that shared military service did as much if not more than the then-revolutionary and globally envied American public school system to build shared reference points for an otherwise polyglot and potentially ungovernable demos. Other societies across history have wrestled with this question for different reasons and different solutions. It’s not a sui generis American problem. Yet even after 2001-2008 it’s discussed briefly and another magnet goes on a car somewhere.

Wait? This Was Seven Card? Not Hearts?

If the Stiftung played our life cards differently (or even played them at all) maybe we would’ve had the privilege of adding a small bit to this body of work. You know, solve, not merely describe. We did so once. Maybe that was enough.

Smart people advise dropping the whole Stiftung conceit. To seek public stature, put the face on the blog, add a donate button and ads. One former graduate professor from long ago advised writing a book now. Both of us are Old Skool and think of books as something now gone. This particular topic on civil-military relations is among the few that unquestionably warrants as much intellectual investment as the country can get.

We still remember thinking about all this with Charlie at Zhukov’s dacha many years ago. The issue nags at us still. Especially on Memorial Day.

Happy holiday to all. We’ll probably tweet about it.


  1. Dr Leo Strauss says

    @jamie Concerns about a growing culture gap remain regardless how one views an appropriate American geopolitical role. Unfortunately, we’d argue that history indicates a professional military’s size isn’t directly related to a gap’s existence or consequences.

    We’d also argue that the gap actually increases ceteris paribus potentially unwise American resort to force, especially ‘consequence free’ kinetics. Regardless of size or the GI Bill, etc. Put another way, it’s not where the brains go, but getting the brains to understand the culture and ethos of the Other.

  2. says

    Leo, I appreciate that but don’t you just need a smaller army, free graduate education and a properly regulated job market? Putting all your brains in the army just isn’t a general strategy.
    jamie recently posted..soft power- bitches

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