A twitter commentator notes that last week's column "succeeded in jumbling many-an-infantryman's panties." I feel bad about that, twisted knickers being a discomfort I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. But let's take stock of the infantrymen's complaints:
1) Rosa Brooks has never been in combat! Guilty as charged. As a nosy human rights and journalist type, I have occasionally had the very unpleasant experience of getting shot at. I scurried away as fast as I could.
2) Because she's never been in combat, she's not qualified to say anything about what qualities the military will need! Come on, guys. Give me a little credit. Contrary to popular belief, most of us columnists don't just make stuff up. We do research -- which means, among other things, that when we lack personal experience with something, we talk to lots of people who've had more experience. My statements about combat and modern warfare are informed by the many conversations I've had about these issues with friends in uniform.
3) But physical strength is vital in the infantry ... and the infantry is the heart of the military. Okay, let's stipulate that physical strength is vital in the infantry. But though the infantry may be the historical heart of the military, that's not where most military personnel find their homes. Even in the Army, only about fifteen percent of soldiers are in the infantry. So if we're talking about what we should look for in recruiting infantrymen, perhaps physical strength should be an important criterion -- but since most military recruits will not be infantrymen, will not have any combat MOS and will never see combat, why should a quality that's important for infantrymen be considered equally important for the overwhelming majority of recruits who are heading into a non-combat MOS?
Even if physical strength is vital in combat, it's becoming a necessary but not sufficient quality for an infantryman. The infantry has been asked to do more in recent years than just "close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver." We have increasingly asked infantry troops to conduct key leader engagements with people whose cultures are vastly different than ours, or bring essential services to people who lack them, and so on. All this puts a premium on brains rather than brawn. As David Petraeus puts it, "The most powerful tool any soldier carries is not his weapon but his mind. These days, and for the days ahead as far as we can see, what soldiers at all ranks know is liable to be at least as important to their success as what they can physically do."
4) You're saying that physical fitness is irrelevant for most military personnel! No, I'm saying that sheer strength is no longer as vital as it used to be ... And that technical skills, maturity and judgment are more vital than they used to be. It's a matter of relative importance, not of absolute importance. Ideally, we would recruit people who possess physical strength and endurance and critical skills and good judgment. It's a balance, and the optimal balance will vary by branch and MOS. But we may be more likely to find that optimal balance if we recruit more aggressively among women and men who are over 24.
5) You're saying that all young men are immature! Well ... Kinda! No, just kidding. Some are. Some aren't. Statistically, though, the 18-24-year-old male demographic is just not a hotbed of maturity. Sorry.
6) You want to recruit at the AARP! I really was kidding about that. Cross my heart. Though I've seen a few old ladies who are demons with their walkers, my proposal is more modest. I propose that if we want to find the optimal mix of fitness, skill and judgment, we should not focus primarily on young men. (And for the record, my extremely awesome husband, who commands an infantry battalion and recently attained the positively antique age of 45, regularly puts his junior soldiers to shame during PT. Also for the record, he bears no responsibility for any dumb stuff I say.)
7) You want to exclude young men from the military! No. Our military should welcome 18-24 year olds -- assuming they're emotionally mature enough not to cause more problems than they help solve. But we should also increase efforts to recruit women and older Americans -- assuming that they too can satisfy minimum fitness requirements -- and explore ways to reform the military personnel system, so the military can attract and retain a wider range of people with a wider range of skills and attributes.
Now was that really so painful?
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Some readers are taking me to task for impugning the military with the word socialism. I should be clear: though I may be one of the last three people in America who feels this way, I don't use "socialism" as a dirty word, at least if what we mean by "socialism" is having a society that takes decent care of its people. (No, no, no, I'm not gonna defend the USSR. I'm just saying that there's something to be said for the welfare state.)
I've also been taken to task ("Ungrateful moron!," writes a Mr. David
Hurley) for failing to see that a) the military deserves these great benefits,
damn it, because they may get shot at/must at times live away from their families
etc., or b) the benefits aren't all they're cracked up to be, because the
on-base housing sucks! the health care sucks! the pay for junior enlisted
troops sucks! Etc.
I don't disagree. I'm all in favor of the majority of the benefits for which military personnel are eligible. (The sole exception might be the ability to immediately draw pensions after 20 years). In some cases, I agree that the benefits could use improvement: the quality of some services is uneven.
Whether the current level of spending on military benefits is sustainable,
given economic realities, is a separate and critical question, but I will leave
that to a future column or blog.
My real beef? It's not that benefits for military personnel are "too generous," morally speaking. They're not. What strikes me as sad is that we seem to lack a similarly generous instinct for the large majority of citizens who aren't in the military. I think it's fine to reward those who serve in important ways with some "extras," but I don't think access to affordable health care, housing or higher education should be considered rewards or extras. Those are the bare minimum benefits a decent, functioning society should strive to provide for all its citizens.
As I said, I'm cool with the military welfare state. I just wish we'd spread it
around a bit more.
My Georgetown colleague David Luban picks up on a related point. He writes:
"[Your column] made me think about a major contradiction in our national psyche:
1. Americans mistrust big government.
2. Americans believe in free markets as opposed to command economies.
3. Americans trust the military more than any other pubic institution.
4. The military is the biggest thing in big government, and it's run through a chain of command?
How is it that people who don't believe in top-down command to run society think that a top-down command organization is the most trustworthy and reliable one in society?"
Good question. American attitudes towards the military are full of contradictions and ironies. We want the military to do more; we want it to stick to it's "core competencies," we worship it; we don't want our children in it; we want it to have the generous benefits we decry as socialistic and and anti-freedom when a Democrat urges them for the rest of the country; we want the military to solve our problems and go everywhere; we want it to stay out of our sight.
This first column introduces some of these themes. I look forward to exploring them more fully in the coming months. Meanwhile, keep the comments and emails coming.
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
Rosa Brooks, who writes FP's "By Other Means" column, blogs about war, politics, and the evolving role of the military.