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Having the ‘Best Military’ Is Not Always a Good Thing: Reclaiming Our Citizen-Soldier Heritage

July 20, 2008

William J. Astore

When did American troops become “warfighters” — members of “Generation Kill” — instead of citizen-soldiers? And when did we become so proud of declaring our military to be “the world’s best”? These are neither frivolous nor rhetorical questions. Open up any national defense publication today and you can’t miss the ads from defense contractors, all eagerly touting the ways they “serve” America’s “warfighters.” Listen to the politicians, and you’ll hear the obligatory incantation about our military being “the world’s best.”

All this is, by now, so often repeated — so eagerly accepted — that few of us seem to recall how against the American grain it really is. If anything — and I saw this in studying German military history — it’s far more in keeping with the bellicose traditions and bumptious rhetoric of Imperial Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II than of an American republic that began its march to independence with patriotic Minutemen in revolt against King George.

So consider this a modest proposal from a retired citizen-airman: A small but meaningful act against the creeping militarism of the Bush years would be to collectively repudiate our “world’s best warfighter” rhetoric and re-embrace instead a tradition of reluctant but resolute citizen-soldiers.

Becoming Warfighters

I first noticed the term “warfighter” in 2002. Like many a field-grade staff officer, I spent a lot of time crafting PowerPoint briefings, trying to sell senior officers and the Pentagon on my particular unit’s importance to the President’s new Global War on Terrorism. The more briefings I saw, the more often I came across references to “serving the warfighter.” It was, I suppose, an obvious selling point, once we were at war in Afghanistan and gearing up for “regime-change” in Iraq. And I was probably typical in that I, too, grabbed the term for my briefings. After all, who wants to be left behind when it comes to supporting the troops “at the pointy end of the spear” (to borrow another military trope)?

Americans had a long tradition of being distrustful of the very idea of a large, permanent army, as well as of giving potentially disruptive authority to generals.

But I wasn’t comfortable with the term then, and today it tastes bitter in my mouth. Until recent times, the American military was justly proud of being a force of citizen-soldiers. It didn’t matter whether you were talking about those famed Revolutionary War Minutemen, courageous Civil War volunteers, or the “Greatest Generation” conscripts of World War II. After all, Americans had a long tradition of being distrustful of the very idea of a large, permanent army, as well as of giving potentially disruptive authority to generals.

Our tradition of citizen-soldiery was (and could still be) one of the great strengths of this country. Let me give you two examples of such citizen-soldiers, well known within military circles because they wrote especially powerful memoirs. Eugene B. Sledge served in the U.S. Marines during World War II, surviving two unimaginably brutal campaigns on the islands of Peleliu and Okinawa. His memoir With the Old Breed is arguably the best account of ground warfare in the Pacific. After three years of selfless, heroic service to his country, Sledge gladly returned to civilian life, eventually becoming a professor of biology. His conclusion — that “war is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste” — is one seconded by many a combat veteran.

Richard (Dick) Winters is better known because his exploits were captured in the HBO series Band of Brothers. He rose from platoon commander to battalion commander, serving in the elite 101st Airborne Division during World War II. A hero beloved by his men, Winters wanted nothing more than to quit the military and return to the civilian world. After the war, he lived a quiet life as a businessman in Pennsylvania, rarely mentioning his service and refusing to use his retired military rank for personal gratification. In Beyond Band of Brothers, he recounts both his service and his ideas on leadership. It’s a book to put in the hands of any young American who wishes to understand the noble ideas of service and sacrifice.

Sledge and Winters were regular guys who answered their country’s call. What comes across in their memoirs, as well as in the many letters I’ve read from World War II soldiers, was the desire of the average dogface to win the war, return home, hang up the uniform, and never again fire a shot in anger. These men were war-enders, not warfighters. Indeed, they would’ve been sickened by the very idea of being “warfighters.”

traditionally our soldiers have thought of themselves as civilians first, soldiers second. Equally as important, the American people thought of their troops that way.

The term “warfighter” — a combination, I suppose, of “warrior” and “war fighting” — suggests a person who lives for war, who spoils for a fight. Certainly, the United States has fought its share of ruthless wars. But traditionally our soldiers have thought of themselves as civilians first, soldiers second. Equally as important, the American people thought of their troops that way.

Why are we now, with so little debate, casting aside an ethos that served us well for two centuries for one that straightforwardly embraces war and killing? Possibly because we’ve invented a distinctly American product: sanitized militarism. I bumped into it last week at a most unlikely place…

READ THE REST OF THIS POST AT TOMDISPATCH.COM

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He now teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism, among other works (Potomac Press, 2005). He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.

Copyright 2008 William Astore

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