In the spring of 2001, I received an email forwarded from another
former Marine noting how the enlisted Marines around President
George W. Bush were already affording the President more respect
than they had ever given President Clinton.
After noting my own liberal tendencies,
including a post-Corps stint with Greenpeace, I asked the group
of people who had also received this email why the two Presidents
were being treated so differently that early in their respective
terms. After all, I noted, while President Clinton was no saint,
President Bush's own pre-political life was so problematic that
he was unwilling to even discuss decades of it during the preceding
campaign. Why, I asked, were enlisted Marines so dramatically
pro-Republican that, even at the beginning of his term, they
hadn't, apparently, afforded Democratic President Clinton the
respect they immediately showed for Republican President Bush?
A greater, but unspecified, questions was “and what does this mean to the military and the nation as
a whole?” What, I wondered to my heretofore unknown correspondents,
was I missing?
I'm not exactly sure what I expected to get in reply to my query.
But what I did get was very disturbing.
While the responses varied in detail,
the theme was fairly common. Almost immediately I was called
a “liberal fag” whose “email sh*t” was
making someone “vomit.” I was told to “grow up and gain some self-respect” and
that my “lack of judgment should be a [Marine Corps] lecture on
the ‘Making of a Dysfunctional Marine Officer.'” I was, one email
pointed out, certainly “missing something.” (One response did contain
a list of reasons why Marines might not respect Clinton, but after
further discussion, the respondent agreed that the reasons generally
occurred sometime after Clinton was in office. I don't dispute
that President Clinton gave Marines numerous reasons to lose respect
for him after he had been in office some time).
If these emails had been from a
bunch of 18 and 19-year olds, full of the well-deserved pride
of being a Marine, I would have been neither surprised nor particularly
disappointed. After all, the young men and women who form the
backbone of the Corps lack some of the life experiences that
allow one to reflect on life's bigger issues. They are recruited
and trained to project US foreign policy overseas and no one
does it better. After all, the Command-fostered eagerness to
charge out of a helicopter in the middle of hostile territory
does not mesh very well with pondering “why?”
I expect more from the leaders, and former leaders, of today's
There could have been many responses to my question. President
Bush's own father is, justly, a military hero himself in addition
to having been Commander-in-Chief during the first Gulf War. Vice-President
Cheney was Secretary of Defense during the first Gulf War and President
Bush, unlike Clinton, actually served in the military, albeit to
a limited extent and under questionable circumstances. These connections
might, conceivably, automatically elevate the current President
over his predecessor in the eyes of a Marine.
But almost no one made those arguments.
Instead of responding to my question with relevant facts, these
correspondents, including field grade professional Marine Corps
officers, berated me for having asked it in the first place.
Granted, one of email's basic problems is the difficulty of sensing
the emotion behind the typed word, but much of the language used
spoke for itself. By even bringing up my question, I had turned
my back on my own and, one Marine hoped, would not declare my
affiliation “with us, the true defenders
of the Constitution.”
The reason these responses trouble me so much is that they indicate,
to me, at any rate, that our officer corps is not growing in maturity
as it grows in age. My own letters, when I was a 26-year old Infantry
officer leading Marines in a variety of situations, have the same
tone. Liberals were bad, conservatives good. Democrats were God's
scourge and Republicans knew the only true way. I have since, 14
years, 2 kids, a wife and several careers down the line, learned
that life is never that easy. Sometimes liberals are good, sometimes
Republicans are wrong. Sometimes simple looking missions acquire
deadly complexities and black and white can turn viciously gray.
In the real world, there are few, if any absolute truths.
The residual effect of such knee-jerk
conservatism, “shoot the
messenger” style response to fairly open-handed questions is especially
problematic. Obviously the military, the Marines foremost among
all the services, needs to have people who will do as they're told.
Discipline is imperative and battles are not won by squabblers.
Yet, much can be learned by the regular posing of questions such
as “why?” and “what if?” Questioning authority is not the same
as either disrespecting it or ignoring it. What if a junior level
mechanic had flagged the Osprey's maintenance irregularities? What
if a mid-level maintenance officer had officially, and effectively,
questioned the craft's flight worthiness? Would the Marines who
died in a fiery Osprey crash in 2000 still be alive? No one can
say for sure, but the apparent inability to discuss the merits
of relatively minor issues such as the conduct of Marines around
the President does not bode well for attempts to tackle larger,
Further, with such a clear and
vitriolic disdain for self-proclaimed liberals, it is no wonder
that the military has become so monolithically conservative.
Who but a fellow conservative would feel comfortable serving
alongside people who see an honest, if pointed, ‘liberal'
questions as an opportunity to trash the reputation and virtues
of the questioner rather than as an opportunity for open debate.
A liberal would need either a very thick skin or a very silent
tongue, or both, to survive in such an environment. As younger,
more liberal officers leave the service, the only ones left to
promote are, by definition, more conservative. I, for one, find
the fact that an overwhelming majority of our nation's senior military
officers are conservatives to be at least as worrisome as the alleged
liberal skew some find in our media.
Officers, both those who currently lead our servicemembers and
those who, like myself, proudly proclaim their military past, must
be capable of seeing past the mob-like mentality frequently fostered,
intentionally or unintentionally, by military organizations. Mature,
capable officers must be able to formulate intelligent, logical
responses to the questions that face our overall society and be
able to present those responses both to the general public and
to themselves. Debate, not disobedience, or disrespect, should
be encouraged as appropriate at all ranks, not reduced to simple
name-calling and insults.
The military is not, and should not be, a world apart from the
rest of the nation. Servicemembers, including Marine Corps officers,
face the same issues as the rest of the US, although sometimes
under different circumstances. Problems such as political graft,
drug abuse, tense race relations and stratospheric housing prices
impact everyone from the highest-ranking General to the lowest
ranking Private. And in today's complex world, officers who cannot
look past their own personal beliefs when discussing issues they
find upsetting do their Services and the men and women they lead
a great disservice.