by Christopher Roach
In the lawsuit challenging Harvard’s affirmative action practices, a group of senior retired military officers filed an amicus brief, which argued that maintaining affirmative action was a “national security imperative.” Those signing off include four former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, six former superintendents of the service academies, and 17 retired four-star generals, including Wesley Clark and William McRaven.
Recruiting an adequate number of troops and increasing their quality also seems pretty important. But we know that recent efforts at recruiting have been a disaster, amplified by the mass expulsion of troops who refused the COVID vaccine.
While things carried on for a while out of habit, eventually the patriotic, mostly white, rural Americans who formed the backbone of the military started doing an about face. Polls show that fewer veterans now want their kids to follow in their footsteps. Conservative Republicans, once the most stalwart supporters of the military, have lately become more critical and less trusting.
Woke Military Has Difficulty Recruiting
The reason for these trends is obvious: the military leadership has lost its way and its moral compass.
As the ruling class ethos has shifted leftward, military leaders have become imitators and flatterers of the powerful. That is, top military leaders have decided to move away from the military’s traditional nonpartisanship and color-blindness and instead identify with the managerial class leftism and identity politics of Washington, D.C. This is why they have gay pride events and talk about “white rage.” They confused this ideology with the values of the country as a whole.
Declining interest in service by conservative and white Americans is not irrational. Why fight for a governing class that hates you, deems you the central political problem, seeks to humiliate you, and disrespects your ancestors at every opportunity? Why serve an American empire that pursues foreign wars like those in Iraq and Ukraine that have almost no relationship to actual national security and explicitly serve a left-wing ideology?
One might respond that military service is good even under these conditions in order to get useful training and make a living. But even under such a self-serving standard, the incentive to do so is declining, as white men within the military are subject to a rigged game, where it is harder to get ahead, and the old standards of excellence no longer matter. This will only get worse without a dramatic reset in the culture of our military and political leaders.
Right now, at least superficially, the military seems like a good place for whites and men, especially compared to politically correct corporate America. White men are overrepresented in the military leadership compared to universities, large corporations, and other institutions fully committed to the au courant value of diversity. But this is because military leaders’ demographics are a lagging indicator; those at the top mostly reflect the composition of the service in the 1980s and 1990s, when today’s senior officers joined and when the country’s demographics were very different. Such opportunities are unlikely to continue 20 years hence, when who advances among the current cohort will be shaped by diversity dominating every decision. Look at big-city police departments for the level of leadership quality one can expect from diversity-driven personnel decisions.
Mercenary Values Arise
A very different story forms a useful bookend with the ex-generals’ affirmative action brief.
A retired Marine Corps aviator was arrested in Australia for lending his expertise to the highest bidder: in his case, the Chinese government. Apparently, a sizable cohort of British pilots are also in on the act. According to CBS News, “the foreigners train Chinese pilots in Western air combat techniques, offering firsthand knowledge of how the Royal Air Force and other air forces fight.”
This only seems unusual if one ignores the broader mercenary trend among the American armed forces. Many follow a path like Lloyd Austin. He was an undistinguished general with no obvious talents, the combatant commander for failed military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, he went on to become a millionaire at Raytheon after his retirement because of his access to decision-makers.
Now, as secretary of defense, Austin makes decisions on contracts for companies that will pay him many more millions when he returns to the private sector. Retired generals James Mattis and David Petraeus also cashed-in within the military-industrial complex. This happens to a lesser degree with almost every retired senior military leader, in spite of laws designed to limit the practice.
Not content to make money at home, some retired generals and subject matter experts have been heading to United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to cash in. We witnessed an earlier, smaller-scale iteration of this trend during the wars in the Middle East, when special forces operators were leaving the service en masse to make six-figure incomes at private military contractors like Blackwater and Triple Canopy.
Even without the foreign intrigue element, the corruption, expense account abuse, and self-dealing within the U.S. military have become the stuff of legend. It turns out that the avarice and low integrity of contractors and the leadership tend to rub off when a military ostensibly devoted to national defense instead pursues imperial and commercial goals. As the Marine Corps hero Smedley Butler figured out, “war is a racket.” Some fighting men conclude it’s a sucker’s game to refrain from cashing in, as money-making is the principle guiding the entire enterprise.
The economic dynamics of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) probably also has something to do with the rise of mercenary values. The AVF and the advertising associated with it—“Be All That You Can Be!”—reimagined military service as a form of self-help and self-improvement, a way to acquire marketable skills and make a good living. The AVF led to better pay, comparable, or in many cases far in excess of private sector compensation. Those who make it a career, in addition to getting a good salary, also receive a pension, something that has largely disappeared from the private sector.
Recruiting in this way encourages a different type of person with different motives to join the military. These commercial values conflict with the military’s legacy values of duty and service. The latter, more ancient commitments are why military service has long received praise and respect from civilians. Such public honor may be considered part of the non-monetary compensation for military service.
In the years following World War II, almost every man of military age served, with most being drafted and returning to civilian life after the war. As conscripts, they were paid poorly, but a grateful nation did provide them respect and a privileged place in postwar America.
Few of these men had a rosy view of the military, a theme explored by Paul Fussell in his book Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic. But this was the age of actual “citizen soldiers,” who served during an emergency and returned to their lives, with their civilian lives informing their approach to the military, and their military service providing a useful perspective as citizens.
Citizen-Soldiers or a Warrior Aristocracy?
During the War on Terror, lavish praise for military service flowed from a widespread feeling of guilt. After the 9/11 attacks, the country wanted safety and revenge—but, other than service members and their families, very few Americans carried the burdens of war. The civilian-military gap was amplified by the increasing self-perception of servicemembers as “warriors,” rather than mere soldiers. From this romantic view of military service as a superior way of life undertaken by superior people, we see the first seedlings of a warrior aristocracy.
A constitutional republic and a warrior aristocracy are polar opposites. The European aristocracy found its origins in rewards for battlefield merit, where particular acts of bravery led to a title bestowed on the hero and his heirs, as well as land, the right to income from taxes for land-bound peasants, and exemption from taxes otherwise owed to the king.
In his lesser-known book, The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, moderate French republican and erstwhile aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville described how over time the aristocrat class became selfish and rapacious, exploiting the growing mercantile classes through privileges and taxation. Subject to an unworthy aristocracy and the crushing burden of taxes on the private sector, the grievances of the mercantile French bourgeoisie had much to do with the French Revolution.
Today, the various discounts, tax breaks, easier access to federal employment, pensions, lifelong health care, and custom-made jobs in the military-industrial complex are akin to aristocratic privilege. These rewards have led to a change in attitudes, including the “thank me for my service” view one sometimes encounters, as well as the heavy-handed uses of military service by candidates who center their political campaigns on their status as veterans.
Returning to the theme of veterans selling their skills to foreign regimes, this is entirely unseemly and likely very dangerous. It is not as if there is some deep, abiding connection between the United States and the sheikdoms and monarchies of the Middle East. And our relationship with China, while highly intertwined commercially, is mostly that of a hostile competitor and borderline enemy.
Just as there are limits on exporting sensitive military technology, we do not want our expensively-trained military men to share their tactics, techniques, and skills with a potential enemy.
Only a Nonpartisan, Color-Blind Military Can Protect the Republic
In exchange for the prestige and perquisites of military service, one thing is absolutely essential: loyalty to the country, the Constitution, and the American people. Without patriotism, the military becomes a very sophisticated gang, one that easily can be turned against the American people. Some will scoff that such a prospect is unthinkable, but one would have thought General Mark Milley undermining the commander-in-chief or a Marine selling his services to the Chinese were impossible too.
It is unlikely the military or any institution by itself will unite the country, when the country is disunited by the ideology of diversity and racial spoils, which encourage a zero-sum, mutually hostile internal politics. Fourth Generation Warfare theorist, Bill Lind argued that such a military and such a country may fragment into component pieces reflecting these more visceral subnational identities of race, sex, religion, and sexuality.
Along with these disunifying ethnic politics, the culture of graft and self-dealing within the military only further erodes noncommercial values such as patriotism, integrity, and service, which were more pronounced parts of the military’s culture before the institution of the AVF.
It would be nice if the laws we already had were enforced, and the culture of the military would frown upon the flagrant cashing-in with defense contractors, overseas regimes, pseudonymous writers, and other interested parties. But this seems unlikely.
While in the past the military served to increase national unity with its treatment of members as interchangeable, ranked by a culture of high and color-blind standards, the ideology of “diversity” only encourages ethnic loyalties to remain dominant and primary, a substitute for our national identity as citizens. Rather than contributing to national defense, affirmative action and pursuing diversity accelerates national division.
The military now reflects the selfishness and fragmentation of our culture. Welcome to the looting-the-treasury phase of imperial decline.
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Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.
Photo “National Guard Troops in Gay Pride Parade” by California National Guard. CC BY 2.0.